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.

Hungary – Republic Day

October 23

For three decades Hungarians were forbidden to mention the events that occurred on October 23, 1956.

After World War II, Hungary found itself increasingly under the thumb of the Soviet occupiers that had liberated the country from the Nazis. The Communist Party slowly replaced the democratically elected Hungarian government, and the Hungarian State Security Police “purged” thousands of political dissidents through relocation, imprisonment, and execution.

In 1955 Hungarians hoped their country might go the way of Austria, becoming a demilitarized, independent country. However, the Warsaw Pact of that year bound Hungary to the USSR and formed part of “the Iron Curtain”.

In Poland, public outcry at Soviet quashing of an uprising had led the Soviets to make concessions to Poland in October 1956. Hungarian students expressing solidarity with the Poles by holding a demonstration in Budapest at statue of Polish-Hungarian General Józef Bern. Students cut the Soviet coat of arms from the Hungarian flag and sang the old national song, Nemzeti dal, “We vow we will no longer remain slaves.”

According to reports, the crowd swelled from 20,000 people to as many as 200,000. By evening, the crowd had toppled the 10 meter tall statue of the recently-deceased Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and placed Hungarian flags in his boot. As the demonstrations multiplied and crowds grew unruly, Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest. But it was the much reviled Security Police that fired the first shots into the crowd.

News of the clashes in Budapest spread throughout the country. Protests and demonstrations broke across Hungary, followed by mob violence against the Security Police and full-scale revolution.

On the 28th of October, Soviets called for a ceasefire and Soviet forces withdrew from Budapest. A new national Hungarian government was proclaimed, led by Imre Nagy, with the intention of becoming a neutral multi-party democracy.

The joy was brief. On November 3, the infant government was invited to negotiate the withdrawal of Soviet forces. Arriving at the meeting point, the delegation was arrested. Soviet tanks attacked Budapest in “Operation Whirlwind”. By November 10, when the last rebels conceded defeat, 2,500 Hungarians and 722 Soviet troops were dead.

It would be a long road to freedom for the Hungarians. On October 23, 1989, just before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the Republic of Hungary was proclaimed, and October 23 was declared a national holiday in memory of the short-lived government and the revolution that refused to be forgotten.

Hungary – St. Stephen’s Day

August 20

Today Hungarians honor the founder of their nation. Over a thousand years ago King Stephen (that’s Saint Stephen to you) was crowned King of Hungary. Though a saint, King Stephen was not someone you’d want on your bad side. He once killed an opponent by having his eyes gouged out and pouring molten led into his ears. And that was his cousin.

King Stephen. No, its not a fro.
King Stephen. No, it's not a fro.

The whole molten-ear thing aside, he was considered a pious king, who imbued his dominion with Christian principles and established a Hungarian state very similar to the one still in existence. Even then Hungary was a multicultural nation, which the king encouraged:

“Foreigners coming from different countries and places to settle here bring with them a variety of languages, customs, instructive matters, and arms, which all contribute to adorn and glorify the royal court…A country speaking but one language, and where uniform customs prevail, is weak and fragile.”

King Stephen’s words have survived to this day. He once wrote to his son Emeric:

“Thou hast been brought up amidst delights and treasures, and knowest nothing of the arduous labors of war and the perils of hostile invasions by foreign nation, in the midst of which nearly my whole life has been passed.

The time has arrived to leave behind thee those pillows of luxuriousness which are apt to render thee weak and frivolous, to make thee waste thy virtues, and to nourish in thee thy sins…

…Rule over [thy subjects] peaceably, humbly, and gently, without anger, pride, and envy, bearing in mind that all men are equal, that nothing exalts more than humility, nor is there any thing more degrading than pride and envy.”

He forgot, however, to pass on the most valuable wisdom a parent can offer a child: “Ease off the boar hunting.”

Emeric was killed in a boar hunt accident in 1031–according to legend, on the same day he was set to inherit the kingdom. King Stephen never fully recovered from the loss.

Holy Crown of Istvan (Stephen)
Holy Crown of Istvan (Stephen)

For a man so blessed in other arenas, Stephen had poor fortune when it came to progeny. The father of the nation had no children of his own to take over the crown.

He died on August 15, 1038. His saint day is the following day in the Roman Catholic church: August 16. However, the Hungarians honor him on August 20–the anniversary of the date his remains were brought to Buda. It turns out that not only were Stephen’s words, his Christian piety and his principles preserved, so was his hand.

His right hand. And each year on St. Stephen’s Day Hungarians line the streets as the king’s surprisingly well-preserved 1000 year-old right hand is paraded through the capital.

Stephens right hand
King Stephen's handy relic