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World War I, the Beginning of the End

Left: Coronation of King Charles IV in Budapest; soldiers removing button from military cap; Right: Returning Hungarian troops

World War I, the Beginning of the End

Erika Papp Faber  

Hungary took part in World War I not of its own free will, but was dragged into it because it was yoked to Austria through the Compromise of 1867, which had established the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy.  Actually, Hungary’s independence had been compromised ever since 1526 when, in its fight to stem the onslaught of the Ottoman Turks, it had been left to its own devices.  At the battle of Mohács, to which not one Western nation had sent military support, the country’s civil and military leaders were mowed down, under what may be considered questionable circumstances. (How could the king drown in a small brook, as has been maintained?) 

Soon thereafter, the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand became king of Hungary.  And  Austrian  rule became THE rule. 

When it became too much to bear, and Hungarians rose up in 1703 to claim their independence, even the Pope turned against Hungary, directing the Hungarian clergy, in a letter dated September 2nd, 1707, not to support Rákóczi’s fight for freedom. Then in 1848-49, Hungarians once again fought to free themselves of the Austrian yoke, and were successful, until Austria called in Russian troops to help quell them. And Hungary suffered the reinstatement of Austrian absolutist rule, with executions, long prison terms, undercover informants and foreign bureaucrats appointed to administrative posts.

Finally, in 1867, a Compromise was crafted, by which the Dual Monarchy was established, with Austria and Hungary sharing the same sovereign as well as having finances, military and foreign affairs in common. And eventually THAT proved fatal for Hungary!  As the German saying goes, ”Mitgegangen, mitgefangen, mitgehangen!” (Went together, caught together, hung together).

As part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, Hungary was the ONLY nation opposing Austria’s eagerness to go to war against Serbia in 1914 (see our February 2020 issue). But Tisza István was overruled, and from then on, all he could do was to try to safeguard Hungary’s territorial integrity, which was being threatened by the Russian Panslav expansionist policy that had made such great headway in Serbia.  He was ready to sign a peace treaty in the fall of 1916, after the Romanian invasion of Transylvania had been repulsed.  But the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia) rejected his offer.  For if a peace treaty had been signed then, ”the dreams (of Czech politicians Edvard Benes and Tomás Masaryk) for Slovakia would have been shattered by a sudden end of the War.  (Their) propaganda effort ... was aimed at sabotaging any peace initiative” (Stephen Sisa, The Spirit of Hungary, p. 219).

Incidentally, according to French estimates, had the peace offer been accepted, ”France alone would have been spared the loss of close to one million of her soldiers” (ibid.)

World War I 

Germany’s invasion of Luxemburg and Belgium in August 1914 opened the western front, which in the end extended from the North Sea to the frontiers of Switzerland, and which remained pretty much the same for the duration of the war.  This is where most of the combatant countries concentrated their troops. Eventually a system of trenches was constructed, with machine gun emplacements, barbed wire systems, and artillery use.  Many attacks were undertaken along this front, by both the Triple Entente and their allies and friends (see the April issue of MNO) and the Central Powers (Austria-Hungary and Germany.)  It was here that poison gas was first applied, that airplanes and tanks were used.  Despite all these, neither side could make headway, until with the entry of the United States in 1917, the Triple Entente gained the upper hand.  

The eastern front  covered most of Eastern Europe, especially Poland, and after the entry of Romania in August of 1916, it extended from the Baltic to the Black Sea.  The front here was more fluid, as the Central Powers could more easily move troops from one war zone to another on account of their geographical location. The chief combatants in this arena were Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria, opposed by Romania and the Russian Empire (which, after the Communist Revolution, became the Soviet Russian Republic in 1917).   

Emperor Franz Joseph had died on November 21st, 1916, and was succeeded by King Charles IV.  The Central Powers were able to exert such pressure on the Russians that the new Soviet government was forced to sue for peace.  They signed a separate peace at Brest-Litovsk on March 3rd, 1918 (which they declared null and void on November 13th of the same year).

Germany signed a ceasefire on November 11th, 1918.

The Aster Revolt (őszirózsás forradalom)

As the  war dragged on into its fifth year, Hungarian civilian and military discontent increased. Street demonstrations and strikes were called in major cities, starting with Budapest.  Disaffected political parties combined to form a Hungarian National Council, on October 25th, 1918, with Count Károlyi Mihály presiding (see separate article). The Council called for the immediate cessation of hostilities, the nation’s complete independence, introduction of major democratic reforms and reconciliation with the various minorities, while at the same time maintaining the country’s territorial integrity. It demanded that King Charles name Count Károlyi to be Prime Minister.  When he named someone else, discontent turned into revolt overnight. Soldiers ripped the button with Franz Joseph’s initials from their caps, replacing them with asters, civilians wore asters in their buttonholes – hence the name, The Aster Revolt (Őszirózsás forradalom). 

Armed masses of workers and soldiers occupied public buildings, arrested the military commandant of Budapest, demanded the proclamation of an independent Hungarian republic, freed some political prisoners, and prevented a marching company of reserves from leaving for the front.  

Former Prime Minister Tisza István was assassinated in his home, the only fatality of the 6-day Aster Revolt. King Charles IV named Count Károlyi Mihály to be Prime Minister of Hungary, and he formed a government. 

On October 31st, Hungary repudiated the Compromise of 1867, by which Hungary had been tied to Austria in a ”personal union”, i.e., united by a common ruler. But the final break with the House of Habsburg came only on November 6th, 1921, when Parliament passed a law dethroning the Habsburgs for the last time. (For the various Habsburg dethronements, see article elsewhere in this issue.) 

The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy was falling apart, with the rapid succession of declarations establishing Czechoslovakia, the Slovenian-Croatian-Serb Kingdom, and Austria itself declaring itself a republic.     

Hungary – with 661,000 (17%) of its enlisted men killed, 743,000 (20%) wounded, and 734,000 (19%) taken prisoner – signed the ceasefire agreement at Padua on November 3rd, 1918 (see the November 2018 issue).  However, the agreement contained no military or territorial directives.  Three days later, the Hungarian army was dissolved, ”since we don’t have to fear any enemy attack!” 

Although President Woodrow Wilson later repudiated it, Károlyi believed his ”14 Points” speech of January 8th, 1918, in which he had declared (in Point X): ”The people of Austria-Hungary, whose place among the nations we wish to see safeguarded and assured, should be accorded the freest opportunity to autonomous development.”

To emphasize its independence from Austria, Károlyi’s new Hungarian government signed a separate ceasefire, the Belgrade Military Convention. That document ordered disarmament of all Hungarian land, sea and river forces, and the handing over of all their equipment; guaranteed the Entente powers the right of requisitioning and freee passage;  and to answer the immediate demands for horses and workmen in order to alleviate war damages.  But abiding by this Convention was not sanctioned even by Clemenceau, nor observed by the members of the Entente who streamed into the country.  Károlyi was afraid to use force against them lest he lose his ability to negotiate concerning the upcoming peace treaty. Consequently, the Serbs, Romanians and Czechs introduced their own administration in the Hungarian areas they occupied (see separate article in this issue).

On November 16th, 1918, the Hungarian National Council declared the form of government to be a People’s Republic, with Károlyi elected President pro tem on January 11th, 1919.  He resigned on March 21st, and Kun Béla, freshly arrived with some friends from training in Moscow, proclaimed the Hungarian Soviet Republic.   


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