Detail from full page artwork illustrating the freedom fight of the 17th-18th century, taken from "Hungarian Heroes and Legends" by Joseph Domjan
Meanwhile the Turks had been beaten back from Buda in 1686. But Hungary was still left with Austrian rulers, who despised their Hungarian subjects and continued to oppress and exploit the people. The ranks of the bujdosók swelled as a result. Enter Thököly Ilona’s son, II. Rákóczi Ferenc.
Although raised by Austrians to be a loyal subject, he had what has been called a “conversion”. A romanticized version of this is presented in a song composed in the early 20th century by Kacsóh Pongrácz. Entitled “Rákóczi megtérése”, it talks of his recalling nursery songs about a forsaken people, and he contrasts the forced gaiety and pomp of the court with the songs of his homeland that awaken his homesickness.
Duna,Tisza partja vár.
Szebb ott az álom,
Szebben dalol a madár.
Rákóczi would eventually take up the mantle of his step-father Thököly Imre, after seeing the plight of the people when his own serfs revolted.
In 1700, war broke out between France and the Habsburg Empire. Rákóczi seized the moment to inquire about possible help from King Louis XIV of France. Unfortunately, the letter fell into Austrian hands, and Rákóczi was arrested. He managed to escape with outside help, and took refuge in Poland. There, delegations from the bujdosók came to beg him to call for a general uprising. On May 6th, 1703, Rákóczi gave the word, and when he returned to Hungary, troops – mostly poor peasants – flocked to him. He had a hard time forming these ill-equipped and untrained volunteers into a fighting force.
By the end of that year, Rákóczi’s troops had grown to 70,000 men. His banners bore the inscription “Cum Deo pro patria et libertate” – With God for homeland and freedom. In January of 1704, he issued a Manifesto, appealing for help, addressed to the Christian rulers and peoples of the world, listing Hungary’s grievances against the House of Habsburg. In July of that same year, he was elected Prince of Transylvania by the Magyar, Székely and Saxon estates.
In that same fateful year, the French suffered a major defeat at the hands of the Austrians, and so did Rákóczi’s troops, as the Austrians burned Nagyenyed and dispersed the kuruc troops in the area of Sopron. Thus Transdanubia fell to the Austrians too. But the kurucok also scored some victories, as several imperial officers went over to the kuruc side.
“Mercurius Hungaricus”, the first periodical in Hungary (in Latin) which became the semi-official bulletin of the Rákóczi freedom fight, was published at the end of May 1705. It changed its name by the second edition, and from then on was known as “Mercurius Veridicus ex Hungaria” – The Truthful Mercury from Hungary.
Austrian Emperor Leopold I died that same month, and a 3-month armistice was signed. The new Emperor, Joseph I, wanted to negotiate peace, but would not agree to independence for Transylvania, nor would he agree to have foreign powers guarantee that Austria adhere to the peace treaty. And so the war continued.
Thököly Imre died in Turkey, in September of 1705. At the end of that month, at the Diet of Szécsény, II. Rákóczi Ferenc, Prince of Transylvania, was elected Ruling Prince of Hungary.
Rákóczi’s troops were adept at guerrilla warfare, but could not acquit themselves in sustained battles. Rákóczi hoped to get French support, but Louis XIV would not agree to a formal alliance as long as the Hungarians recognized Joseph I as their king. So the Hungarians hoped to solve the problem by calling a Diet at Ónod (June 14, 1707), dethroning the Habsburgs, and confirming the election of Rákóczi as Prince of Hungary.
This only made the Austrians more determined, and a series of Habsburg victories, combined with the ravages of the Black Death, defection of some of his troops and the death of some of the kuruc commanders started the decline of Rákóczi’s military fortunes. He traveled to Russia in a futile attempt to gain support from the tsar, and commissioned Károlyi Sándor, one of his lieutenants, to enter into peace negotiations with the Austrians.
Károlyi and 151 dignitaries thus signed the Treaty of Szatmár, without Rákóczi’s consent. The treaty provided for religious freedom, respect for the Hungarian constitution, convocation of a national assembly, and amnesty for all, including Rákóczi himself. But all this was contingent on his taking an oath of allegiance to the Austrian emperor, which he naturally refused. The kuruc troops surrendered on the plain of Nagymajtény on May 1st, 1711, ending the Freedom Fight.
Rákóczi and his closest friends first went to France, where they were received with honor. He withdrew to a monastery there, gardening and spending his time in contemplation. Then war broke out between Austria and Turkey, and the Sultan offered him an alliance if he would fight with them against the Habsburgs. By the time he arrived in Constantinople, however, the Turks had been defeated and his hopes were dashed. The peace treaty concluded between Turkey and Austria specified that Rákóczi had to be exiled to Rodostó, Turkey (the village is called Tekirdag today), on the shore of the Sea of Marmara.
The Habsburgs imposed absolutist rule in Hungary. They ordered that most Hungarian fortresses be blown up. Kuruc songs were forbidden, and every tárogató (a double-reed Hungarian musical instrument that had been favored by Rákóczi’s freedom fighters), was ordered by the Austrians to be burned.
The following song was written by Countess Andrássy Katinka, many of whose ancestors had joined the kurucok, and whose family eventually became the owners of Krasznahorka fortress. (It was one of the few that the Austrians did not destroy. It is located a few miles south of Rozsnyó, in Upper Hungary.) Here she laments the passing of the Rákóczi era:
Krasznahorka büszke vára,
ráborult az éj homálya.
Tornyok ormán az őszi szél
rég múlt dicsőségről mesél.
Rákóczinak dicső kora
nem jön vissza többé soha.
(The mists of night have covered
the proud fortress of Krasznahorka.
On the tops of its towers the autumn winds
tell tales of glory long past.
The glorious era of Rákóczi
will never return.)
Harcosai mind pihennek
(All the warriors
A toronyból késő este
tárogató nem szól messze.
Olyan kihalt, olyan árva
Krasznahorka büszke vára.
of the exiled prince are at rest.
From the tower, late at night,
the tárogató no longer sounds afar.
is so desolate, so forlorn.)
Rákóczi spent the last 22 years of his life in exile. According to his scribe, Mikes Kelemen, who described the life of the exiles in his “Letters from Turkey” – a literary masterpiece addressed to an imaginary aunt – Rákóczi occupied himself with reading, writing letters and his memoirs, and woodworking. He died in 1735. In 1885, his coffin was brought back to Hungary with great pomp. His tomb may be found in the cathedral of Kassa.
The Rákóczi March, famous around the world, was supposedly first played by Bihari János, a composer with gypsy ancestors, in the early 19th century. It was picked up and elaborated on by various famous composers, including Liszt. But Bizet’s version is the one played most often, and its opening bars were used by Radio Budapest, and later by Kossuth Rádió as their signal.
On a personal note: In the late 1950s, a concert was given at Town Hall in New York City by the Philharmonia Hungarica which was composed of musicians who had fled in 1956. For an encore, they played the Rákóczi March. I was among the sizeable group from the audience who stayed for literally half an hour to applaud, because they had played the March as only Hungarian musicians are able to! It was an experience like no other!