Görgei Artúr – Was He Really a Traitor?

Statue of Görgei Artúr in the Vár district, Budapest (photo by EPF); portrait from Wikipedia

Görgei Artúr – Was He Really a Traitor?

Erika Papp Faber 

Görgői és toporci Görgey Artúr was born of an impoverished family of nobles in Toporc, Upper Hungary, on January 30th, 1818.  As the ”y” at the end of his name indicated  nobility, he later changed it to the more democratic ”i”. 

He wanted to become a teacher, but his father insisted that he attend a military academy.  He therefore studied at the Tulln Combat Engineering Academy in Austria, and then served in the Austrian army. By 1837, he was a Lieutenant with the Hungarian Guards.  But he did not like military life, and was discharged in 1845.

After his father’s death, Görgei went to Prague to study Chemistry. In 1847, he discovered lauric acid, and was the first to demonstrate its presence in coconut oil.  But news of his chemical accomplishments did not reach Budapest, and his application for a professorship at Budapest Technical University’s Chemistry department was turned down.

Then the Revolution of 1848 against Austrian despotism broke out, and Görgei volunteered his services to the first free Hungarian government, joining the national defense army (honvédség). He took part in organizing the mobile units of the volunteer national guard (nemzetőrség).

Bán Josip Jellasics of Croatia had joined forces with Austria, and invaded Hungary.  Görgei played a leading role in bringing about the capitulation of Jellasics’ reserve division.  He attracted everyone’s attention in September of 1848, when he ordered the arrest and immediate execution of Count  Zichy Ödön on a charge of treason – he had been caught in the act of conspiring with Jellasics.

Another feather in Görgei’s cap was when, together with Commander Perczel Mór,  he captured a five times larger group of Austrian soldiers with his raw recruits in October of that year.  Kossuth Lajos proposed his advancement to General and named him the leader of the army of the Upper Danube, based on  Görgei’s resolute conduct, exceptional military capability, quick maneuvering, outstanding personal bravery and composure.  His task was to hold up the imperial army. He trained the raw recruits for weeks by avoiding confrontation with the well-equipped Austrian troops who  outnumbered his forces, by planned and disciplined withdrawals, counterattacks and post-battle skirmishes. 

By the spring of 1849, he was ready to counterattack.  Inside of a few short weeks, he chased the imperial army from Miskolc to Pozsony.  He achieved a number of victories along the way, such as the Battles of Hatvan, Isaszeg (see "Victory is Ours!" in the March 2012 issue of MNO),  and Vác, always against superior forces. After taking back Komárom, he turned to free Buda, which he was able to recapture from the Austrians on May 21st.  

Kossuth published a Declaration of Independence on April 14th, 1849, which Görgei opposed.  For politically, Görgei was ready to compromise with the Austrians, and together with the peace party, he thus turned against Kossuth and the radicals.  Nevertheless, he did accept his appointment as Minister of War for two months, between May and July of 1849.  

Once the 200,000 strong Russian forces attacked, at the invitation of the Austrians (for which Görgei blamed Kossuth’s Declaration of Indepedence), Görgei carried on discussions with the Russian military command, with the consent of the Hungarian government. In the Battle of Komárom, Görgei beat back the troops of Baron Julius von Haynau, Chief Commander of the Austrian army which outnumbered the Hungarian forces two to one, but he was seriously injured, and  for a few days hung between life and death.  He then resigned his post as Minister of War.

It was at that point that he performed his most daring and brilliantly executed military maneuver:  he turned North at Vác, to by-pass the Austro-Russian military forces, and for a whole month prevented the enemy (which outnumbered his own troops four to one) from joining the forces of Haynau who was fighting the southern Hungarian army. 

By strenuous forced marches, he left behind the Russian troops, and reached Arad at the beginning of August, to join the Hungarian troops there.  But the Hungarians were no match for the overwhelming numbers of the combined Austro-Russian armies.  They suffered a decisive defeat at Temesvár on August 11th.  Kossuth resigned from his office as Governor and invested Görgei with dictatorial powers. 

Görgei saw no other option, following the decision of his military staff, than to lay down his arms before the Russian commander at Világos.  When he rode by his troops for a final salute on August 13th, his nerves of steel gave way, and he fell on his horse’s neck in tears. 

The Russian chief commander had assured Görgei that the chief Hungarian officers would not be harmed.  The Czar advised the young Franz Josef to grant general amnesty, but the Austrian head of state did not take his advice.  Then the Czar gave orders that should Görgei not be granted amnesty, he should be escorted to Russia.  Consequently, while 13 of the Hungarian commanding oficers were executed at Arad on October 6th, 1849 (see the October 2017 iussue of MNO, ”Final Words of the Martyrs of Arad”), Görgei was spared.  He was interned at Klagenfurt, Austria where he was held until 1867, when the Compromise was signed, creating the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy.

At that point, Görgei Artúr was permitted to return to Hungary.  He settled at Visegrád along the Danube. 

But the label hot-blooded Kossuth attached to this brilliant military commander – that of ”Traitor” – stuck with him all his life.  He died in Budapest on May 16, 1916.  Later on, the Transylvanian poet Áprily Lajos, who moved to Hungary after the ”Treaty” of Trianon because he could not make a living in his home country under Romanian rule, would also settle in Visegrád.  In one of his poems (Királyasszony kertje) he tells his wife, ”it will be good for us here on Traitor’s Row”.

Was Görgei really a traitor?  Or a responsible military commander who did not see that he had any other choice but to surrender in the face of such overwhelming numbers?   The writer Móricz Zsigmond called him ” a living martyr”. 

What do you think?