Both Count Széchenyi István and Kossuth Lajos, the great reformers of the 19th century, wanted to bring Hungary out of the quagmire of medievalism. Their fundamental disagreement was over the best means to achieve that goal.
Széchenyi’s ideas of economic betterment started the ball rolling, and he is regarded as the father of the Reform Era of the early 19th century. He was an introvert whose ideas for change were based on an intellectual foundation. The institutions he had studied in England were to be the pattern considered best suited to bring the Hungarian people out of its condition of backwardness to which it had been consigned by centuries-long foreign oppression – first by the Turks, then by Austria. He envisioned change through education, as an urgent yet gradual process within the existing political framework.
Kossuth, on the other hand, a man of action by temperament, considered that political framework to be the greatest obstacle to Hungarian advancement. He could not wait for the people to be gradually enlightened by Széchenyi's methods. For him, revolution, the throwing off of the Austrian yoke, was the key. While admiring and respecting Széchenyi, Kossuth nevertheless would go his own way, a stirring orator who appealed to the people’s emotions. Although Széchenyi’s ideas were brilliant, he did not have the popular appeal engendered by Kossuth’s speeches.
And so, although he called Széchenyi “the greatest Hungarian”, Kossuth became the popular leader who expressed the frustration most Hungarians felt with the absolutist Austrian regime. He was able to stir the Diet (parliament) into voting for a home guard (honvédség) of 200,000 men, an army intended to defend the homeland, force the emperor to his knees and achieve Hungary’s independence as a nation.
Széchenyi, a pessimist at heart, foresaw only national disaster in the use of such methods. Just as patriotic as Kossuth, he was a man of caution. Yet for the sake of the cause, the improvement of the Hungarian people, he finally fell in with Kossuth’s idea of revolution in order to present a united front. He accepted the position of Minister of Transportation and Public Works in the new government of 1848, but at the price of a major crisis of conscience. The thought that he thereby cooperated in the destruction of his beloved country tore him apart spiritually, and led to his confinement in a mental institution in Döbling, Austria, and ultimately to his death.
So the two patriots, Széchenyi and Kossuth, opposed each other, Széchenyi publishing pamphlet after pamphlet, even writing a book in opposition to Kossuth’s ideas, and Kossuth, as editor of the political journal Pesti Hírlap, replying in kind.
Would Hungarian history in the last century and a half have been different if Széchenyi had had his way? If a popular uprising had been avoided? Most certainly! But without the events of 1848-49, would Hungary have achieved independence, been allowed to follow its own path of development?
We will never know.
Erika Papp Faber is Editor of Magyar News Online.