Beware the Ides of Hungarian National Day

March 15


March 15 is synonymous with betrayal, treachery, back-stabbing and front-stabbing. It’s the anniversary of the assassination of Julius Caesar by Brutus and the Roman Senate in 44 B.C.

But in Hungary, March 15 is synonymous with freedom and independence, so whip out your cockades and join the Hungarians as they sing their National Song today.

Turns out the Hungarians celebrate March 15, 1848, not 44 BC.

In 1848, as the fervor of revolution swept through Europe…

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 revolution in 1848-1849, and Hungary’s crowds were the last holdouts.

Alice Freifeld, Crowd Politics in the Hungarian Revolution

March 15 marked the day that news reached rebellious students and intellectuals in Budapest that revolution had broken out in Vienna, the center of the Hapsburg’s empire. The rebel movement’s leaders had planned a protest march to take place on March 19, but when news hit Budapest, they spontaneously decided to demonstrate in celebration.

And it’s a good thing. The government had gotten wind of the demonstration, and had planned to arrest the movement’s leaders on March 18.

Students marched from Pest to Buda—the two cities that make up the aptly named Budapest—to protest the Hapsburg-dominated monarchy in Austria. Along the way, massive crowds joined the demonstration, spurred on by news from Vienna and the songs of a 25 year-old poet named Sandor Petofi.

Petofi recites National Song, March 15, 1848; by Mihaly Zicky
Petofi recites National Song, March 15, 1848; by Mihaly Zicky

Petofi had been chosen to put the movement’s demands to paper. Deemed the “Twelve Points,” they were:

1. Freedom of the press, the abolition of censorship.
2. A responsible Ministry in Buda and Pest.
3. An annual parliamentary session in Pest.
4. Civil and religious equality before the law.
5. A National Guard.
6. A joint sharing of tax burdens.
7. The cessation of socage.
8. Juries and representation on an equal basis.
9. A national bank
10. The army to swear to support the constitution, our soldiers not be dispatched abroad, and foreign soldiers removed from our soil.
11.The freeing of political prisoners.
12. Reunion with Transylvania.

On the steps of the National Library Petofi led the crowds in the singing of his famous poem “Nemzeti Dal”, which to this day symbolizes Hungarian self-determination and freedom:

Rise up, Magyar, the country calls!
It’s ‘now or never’ what fate befalls…
Shall we live as slaves or free men?
That’s the question – choose your `Amen’!
God of Hungarians,
we swear unto Thee,
We swear unto Thee – that slaves we shall
no longer be!

from “Nemzeti Dal” (National Song)

Unprepared for the rebellions of March 13 in Vienna and March 15 in Budapest, the court was forced to acquiesce to the demands of the Hungarian National Assembly. Hungary became the first (and only) country during the revolutions of 1848 to undergo a peaceful transition.

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Peace was temporary phenomenon. Later that year the Austrian empire recovered from the shock and set about to reconquer Hungary. With the Russian Czar’s help, the Hungarian army was decimated. The Austrian army executed 14 Hungarian leaders, including the new Prime Minister.

Petofi is believed to have been killed at the Battle of Segesvar in Transylvania on July 31, 1849. He was 26 years old. By that time, the soldier-writer-revolutionary had written 10 volumes of Hungarian poems.

Throughout the past century and a half, March 15 has remained a symbol of the Hungarian struggle for liberty and self-determination.

Sunday Bloody Sunday

January 22

“We, workers and inhabitants of the city of St. Petersburg, members of various sosloviia, our wives, children, and helpless aged parents, have come to you, Sovereign, to seek justice and protection…”

Thus began a petition to Nicholas II, Czar of Russia, protesting the working and living conditions in St. Petersburg.

It didn’t work.

The peaceful protest was led by a Russian Orthodox priest named Father George Gapon, a “simple-hearted priest, with a rather childlike faith in God and Tsar,” according to Henry Woodd Nevison (The Dawn in Russia, 1906)

A massive December strike at 174 factories, including the electricity plant, had paralyzed the city. Gapon led approximately 15,000 workers and their families to the Tsar’s Winter Palace with their list of grievances.

According to Nevinson, “Father Gapon organized a dutiful appeal of the Russian workmen to the tender-hearted autocrat whose benevolence was only thwarted by evil counsellors and his ignorance of the truth.”

Father Gapon was the chief scribe of the petition to the Czar. It asked for an 8-hour work day, freedom of assembly to unionize, improved working conditions, medical aid, higher wages for women, freedom of speech, press and religion, and an end to the Japanese war.

The petition ended:

“If you do not respond to our prayer, then we shall die here, on this square, in front of your palace. We have nowhere else to go and no reason to. There are only two roads for us, one to freedom and happiness, the other to the grave. Let our lives be sacrificed for suffering Russia. We do not regret that sacrifice, we embrace it eagerly.”

Despite this claim, the workers and their families did not seem so willing to embrace their fate after 200 of their number had been slaughtered via bayonet and bullet by the Czar’s guards as they approached the palace. (Nevinson claims 1500 dead. The government’s official count was 100.) Hundreds more were injured.

Depiction of Bloody Sunday
Depiction of Bloody Sunday

The Czar didn’t get the petition.

Having been warned of the Sunday march Nicholas had skipped town.

Word circulated about the country, and the numbers of the dead increased with each telling. In Moscow and other cities angry workers rioted, demonstrations turned violent, and thus began the Russian Revolution of 1905.

Father Gapon was not killed in the massacre, though many  around him were. He sneaked out of the country, making his way to Western capitals such as Paris, London and Geneva, to garner international support for the cause.

Gapon was announced as a hero by both Leon Trotsky and the New York Times

Strangely enough, word leaked that Gapon was not only a friend of labor, but also a double agent working for the Okhrana, the Czar’s secret police. The Okhrana clandestinely created or infiltrated union assemblies in order to snuff out the agitators and arrest them.

Gapon’s intentions before the massacre, whether he had any idea of the outcome, will never be know for sure. Nor will we know if, horrified by the events of Bloody Sunday, Gapon’s newfound anger toward the Czar was sincere. It may well have been.

What is known is that soon after his return to Russia, his dead body was found with a rope around his neck in an empty cottage outside the village of Ozerki, Finland.

And an unsigned letter published in a St. Petersburg newspaper read:

George Gapon had been tried by a workmen’s secret tribunal and had been found guilty of having acted as an agent provocateur, of having squandered the money of the workmen, and of having defiled the honor and memory of the comrades who fell on the “Red Sunday.” In consequence of these acts, of which he was said to have made a full confession to the tribunal, he was condemned to death, and the sentence had been duly carried out.

(The Fall of the Russian Empire, Edmund Walsh)

Some say Bloody Sunday is still going on.

The Russian Revolution: through the Eyes of a Factory Worker
Russian Police Kill Four Militants in Chechen Capital<
Russia Police Block Anti-Putin March, Detain Leaders

[Originally published January 2008]