Zoltán Halász / András Balla  / Zsuzsa Béres (translation)

     Excerpt from the book”Hungary” (4th edition)/Corvina/1998)


     Originally published at:



The Tripartite Division of Hungary

On August 26, 1541, fifteen years after the Battle of Mohács, Buda Castle became the scene of unusual events. Ferdinand of Habsburg had been besieging the castle since April, but without success: the Hungarian defence forces continually repelled his attacks. On this day, Sultan Suleiman also appeared under the walls of the castle. Roggendorf, the Hapsburg commander, clashed with the Turks, but shortly afterwards, made a quick retreat. At this point, the sultan invited John Sigismund, the one-year-old prince, to his camp, together with the Hungarian leaders. While the festivities were in progress in the camp, janissaries pretending to be peaceful visitors infiltrated Buda Castle and once inside, disarmed the Hungarian guard. The Sultan declared that a Turkish garrison would be stationed in Buda, and that the region of the Great Plain would become part of the Ottoman Empire. The child John Sigismund and his power was limited to Transylvania and the region beyond the Tisza.

The events leading up to the Sultan's coup reached back fifteen years when, following their victory at Mohács the Turks did not occupy Hungary. Instead, looting and pillaging wherever they passed and seizing large number of people as slaves, they withdrew from the country. This provided an opportunity for organizing the resources of the country against another Turkish offensive. However, this did not happen. The lesser nobility elected the wealthiest landowner in the country, János Zápolyai, as king (1526-1564) on the throne at their counter-Diet. The dual election was followed by internal warfare. After the mercenary army of Ferdinand of Hapsburg drove Zápolyai out of the country, he sought th Sultan's support in regaining his throne. In 1529 Suleiman II personally led his forces into Hungary to help Zápolyai. On the site of the battle of Mohács, Zápolyai formally planted the vassal's kiss on the Sultan's hand. From this point on, Hungary became a battleground. The Turks viewed Hungary as the springboard for their attack on Vienna, and the Hapsburgs, for their part, attempted to maintain at least the northern and western parts of the country under their influence. In this way, Hungary became the locale for a great power struggle, in which both sides strove for decisive power in Europe.

After the Turkish occupation of Buda in 1541, the central and most fertile part of the country, the region of the Great Plain, became part of the great Ottoman Empire which streched over three continents. The supreme ruler of the entire Hungarian territory was the begler bey of Buda, who, having the title of pasha, was directly responsible to the Sultan. The Ottoman system of taxation inflicted a heavy burden on the Hungarian serfs, and the law restricted their freedom of movement. The "heathen" were not allowed to build stone houses and could not repair their damaged homes without permission. On the other hand, the Turks left the population to practice the religion in peace. When war broke out, the Ottoman army again spoiled, destroyed and plundered the country. At such times, Hungary became a veritable slave market; Asian slave traders travelled as far as Buda and transported thousands of slaves to the interior of the Ottoman Empire. The resulting sense of uncertainty forced the population to take refuge in the larger settlements, a movement which led to the depopulation and desolation of hundreds of villages.

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After the battle of Mohács, the western and northern areas of Hungary came under the rule of Ferdinand of Hapsburg as the Kingdom of Hungary. Charles V left the government of the eastern part of his Empire to his brother Ferdinand, who exerted all his energies in an attempt to unite Austria, Bohemia and Hungary under one centralized government. His Council of War strengthened the front defences which ran through the heart of Hungary, and by the second half of the sixteenth century, a network of frontier fortresses had been created. For over a century this network remained the frontier between the Ottoman-occupied part of Hungary and part of the country under Hapsburg rule. Consequently, the area along the line of border fortresses became the scene of continual clashes between the defenders and the Turkish raiders.

The eastern region of the divided country, Transylvania, fell under the rule of Zápolyai's son, John Sigismund. Following his death, prince István Báthori (1571-1586), who had achieved a certain degree of independence from the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires, came into power. Báthori imposed a strong centralized rule. He also recognized the value of heyducks, herdsmen who had banded together into lawless fighters and marauders in the troubled times of war, and began to organize them. He also made it possible for the lower classes of the Székelys living as serfs to make their way upwards through military service.

Báthori planned his foreign policy on a Central-European axis, bases upon an anti-Hapsburg, Transylvanian-Polish-French alliance. He put himself forward as a candidate for the empty throne of Poland, and, with the help of the Polish lesser nobility, was crowned in 1576, consequently becoming one of the great Polish kings.


Struggles against the Turks and the Hapsburgs

The degree of slaughter and devastation in Hungary at the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was equalled only by the Thirty Years' War shortly afterwards. The Fifteen Years' War began in hope of driving the Ottoman forces out of the country. However, it only resulted in defeat and further gains for the Turks. Moreover, the imperial Hapsburg mercenaries plundered and devastated the northern part of the country and Transylvania, which had been relatively peaceful until that time. They aggravated the situation by their aggressive methods and murderous ways, confiscating estates and persecuting the Protestants under Belgioso and Basta, the imperial mercenary commanders. The Hapsburgs also employed the method of show trials for treason in order to confiscate the estates of the landowners, and used force to take away the Protestant churches.

General embitterment and discontent led to the first Hungarian uprising against the Hapsburgs in 1604. The beginning and success of the uprising are linked with the name of István Bocskai, a landowner in Eastern Hungary. He negotiated a secret agreement with the Ottomans, recruited the heyducks under his flag, and after a series of victories over the Hapsburgs, became prince of Transylvania in 1605. Bocskai refused the title of king offered to him by the Sultan, his only objective being to bring peace to the country caught between the two great rival powers, the Hapsburg Empire and the Ottoman Empire. As a result of his steadfast efforts, the Treaty of Vienna was signed in 1606. In this treaty the Emperor undertook to bring the unsuccessful war against the Turks to an immediate end, to return the expropriated estates to their Hungarian owners, to guarantee the freedom of religion, and to station only Hungarian soldiers in the country. Following the Treaty of Vienna, the Emperor signed a treaty with the Turks as well, which concluded the Fifteen Years' War. Although the provisions of the Treaty of Vienna were not fully enforced (in the years immediately following the signing of the Treaty of Vienna, a Counter-Reformation movement led by Péter Pázmány, the brilliant Archbishop of Esztergom, emerged, reconverting the majority of the Protestant magnates, and their serfs, to Catholicism), Transylvania nevertheless continued to be the main bastion in the struggle for independence from the Hapsburgs. Prince Gábor Bethlen (1613-1629), under whose reign Transylvania enjoyed a golden age of economic and cultural development, took up arms against the Hapsburgs several times during the Thirty Years' War to help the Protestant forces.

Why did the Hungarian fight against the Hapsburgs when it was the Turks who held a substantial part of their country under occupation? The answer to this question lies in the Hapsburgs' refusal to take as strong a stand against the Turks as their power and resources would have permitted in their use of Hungary as a buffer-state, and in their compromise solutions - negotiated both openly and in secret - which seriously conflicted with fundamental Hungarian interests. A flagrant example was the tragic fate of Miklós Zrínyi, the Hungarian writer, statesman and military leader. Zrínyi, who was the bán (viceroy) of Croatia and a landowner in the south, strove for the expulsion of the Turks both in his writings and on the battlefield, and his extremely fast and victorious campaign proved that his policy of saving the nation was realistic and feasible. Nevertheless, the imperial general Montecuccoli, and not Zrínyi, was appointed commander-in-chief of the army against the Ottoman forces. The attitude of this "procrastinating general" is summed up by his often-quoted saying, "Three things are required for war: money, money, and money." Following the victory which Montecuccoli finally managed to secure, the imperial court signed a treaty which was tantamount to defeat in return for certain Ottoman trade concessions to Austrian trading capital. Zrínyi died amidst mysterious circumstances while hunting, and even today the suspicion remains that he was murdered. In any case, it is a historical fact that the nobles who led the anti-Hapsburg movement were captured and executed after Zrínyi's death, and their estates were confiscated. The Hapsburgs utilized this event to abolish Hungarian self-government and to undertake a campaign of repression against the Hungarian Protestants. The country was overrun by mercenaries who plundered at will.


The Expulsion of the Turks and the Kuruc War of Independence

In the second half of the seventeenth century, armed clashes became increasingly frequent between Hapsburg mercenaries and the ever growing number of outlaws. These men, known as Kuruc, were forced to leave their homes as a result of the tyranny of the imperial authorities. At the same time, the embittered serfs deeply sympathized with them. The early Kuruc attacks on the Imperial troops ended in failure. Resistance strengthened when a young landowner, Count Imre Thököly, took over the leadership of their uprising in 1678, and having organized a strong army, successfully occupied the northeastern parts of the country. Thököly was consequently made prince of Upper Hungary, and a short-lived Upper Hungarian principality was established. Hungary thus became divided into four parts.

Because of its ware with France, the Hapsburg government had few forces available to deal with the Kuruc threat and was forced to make concessions to the Hungarian barons. The Diet convened in 1681, re-established baronial government, took measures to end the outrages of the German soldiers, announced an amnesty, and made concessions with regard to freedom and religion. As the result of these concessions, the majority of the Hungarian ruling class abandoned Thököly and decided to reach an agreement with the Hapsburgs. Thököly and a faction of the Kuruc fighters nonetheless were determined to continue their resistance.

Thököly's position was greatly weakened in the eyes of the public, because his strategy was based on Ottoman support despite tha changing balance of power in Europe. In light of the events at the end of the century, it became increasingly clear that the time for the expulsion of the Turks from Hungary had come. After the grand vizier Kara Mustapha's unsuccessful siege of Vienna in 1683 by an army of two hundred thousand, Emperor Leopold I, realizing the seriousness of the situation, finally ceased his passsive strategy towards the Turks. Under continued encouragement from Pope Innocent XI, the "Holy League" of Austria, Poland and Venice was established for the struggle against the Turks. A peace treaty, valid for twenty years, was signed by Austria and France, and the allied forces - in which a great number of Hungarian soldiers also fought - began their campaign. In the summer of 1686, after fierce fighting, they captured Buda, and the following year they reoccupied Transylvania. Under the leadership of Charles of Lotharingia and later of Eugene of Savoy, they drove the Turks from Hungary. The final victory of the war, the battle of Zenta in 1697, was followed by the Treaty of Karlovitz [Karlóca] in 1699, which, with the exception of a small region, freed all of Hungary from Turkish occupation.

The question now poses itself, how was it possible that barely four years after the long-awaited liberation from a century and a half of Turkish repression, there followed an all-out war of independence against the Hapsburgs? Why did the people of this impoverished country rise in arms and fight for eight long years against the superior forces of the powerful Hapsburg Empire? The answer is not simple, for the problems are manifold. But one reason for the revolt was that the Hapsburgs violated the interests of the Hungarian landowners when they did not return their estates in the areas formerly under Turkish control. Instead, they were distributed among the Austrian aristocracy, officers of the Imperial Army, and high-ranking court officials. The peasants and serfs were severely affected by the state tax and the so-called portio imposed on them. In addition they were forced to provide quarters and food for the imperial troops. Townspeople also suffered under the burden of ruthless taxation. The Hungarian troops who formerly manned the frontier fortresses were returned to serfdom. The ruined peasants and the thousands of soldiers condemned to new serfdom fled the villages and took refuge as outlaws and bandits in the forests and mountains. The world of the wandering and fleeing poor was once more revived.

In the northern section of the discontented country, a few serfs and a handful of the former officers of the Thököly movement began to organize another anti-Hapsburg movement. Accepting their call to assume command, one of the greatest leaders of the independence movements in Europe, Prince Ferenc Rákóczi II, enters the stage of Hungarian history. Rákóczi's father had been Prince of Transylvania, and his stepfather was Imre Thököly, the leader of the Kuruc uprising. His mother, Ilona Zrínyi, was herself a descendant of military leaders who fought and defended their country against the Turks; she made a heroic defence of the fortress of Munkács against the siege of the Hapsburg army during the final days of the Thököly uprising. Afterwards, she followed her husband into exile.

The young Ferenc Rákóczi, the wealthiest landowner in the country, had learnt the oppressive methods of the Viennese court through personal experience. The Hapsburgs separated him from his family in his youth and deprived him of his freedom, but Rákóczi escaped from the prison at Wiener Neustadt and managed to reach Poland before his threatened trial for treason. In 1703, accepting the offer of leadership from his supporters, Rákóczi returned to Hungary, where great masses of peasants assembled under his banner. In a short time, he had an army of seventy thousand which soon swelled to one hundred thousand. With this army at his disposal, he quickly occupied the greater part of the country. By this time the war of independence - which began as a popular uprising - was joined by large numbers of the nobility. In 1705 the Diet elected Rákóczi as the ruling prince of the confederation of insurgent Hungarian nobles, announced the dethronement of the Hapsburgs, and in 1707 proclaimed the independence of Hungary.

On Ádám Mányoki's contemporary portrait, Rákóczi looks at the world with a natural and spontaneous expression. His heavy dark hair falls to his shoulders from the plumed fur cap that he is wearing. His finely cut and slightly sensuous lips show a man who is fond of life, but the pondering and searching look of his brownish grey eyes reveal a thinker of profound insight. Rákóczi was a highly educated and open-minded man. He conducted his correspondence with his unreliable ally, Louis XIV, in French. During the bitter years of exile, he wrote his Confessions - philosophical and anguished pieces of writing - in fine classical Latin. The manifestoes and decrees which he issued in Hungarian, dictating and revising them himself, were the shining examples of faultless and concise Hungarian prose. He was an excellent organizer whose concerns ranged from providing for the needs of the army to solving increasingly serious economic problems. His foreign policy was broad-minded, yet realistic. He established relations with France and Poland, and sought Russian support.

Yet in the end, the Kuruc war of independence was defeated. After the victory of the Hapsburg forces at Höchstadt, the opportunity was lost for a joint French-Hungarian offensive, and Hapsburg military pressure mounted. The internal contradictions in Hungary continued, and discontent grew among the peasants because they had been waiting in vain for the measure that would free the serfs. The nobility abandoned the struggle that had entailed heavy material sacrifices and deserted to the Hapsburg camp in growing numbers. There was a shortage of money and the soldiers began to leave their units. And while Rákóczi was in Russia at the court of Peter the Great to seek aid, Sándor Károlyi, the commander-in-chief of the Kuruc forces, capitulated (1711). Rákóczi spent the rest of his life in exile, first in France, then in Turkey.


From the Pragmatic Sanction to the Hungarian Jacobins

Following the end of the Kuruc war of independence, the first decades of the eighteenth century marked a period of accommodation and compromise between the Hapsburg administrators and the Hungarian barons. The repopulation of areas devastated under Ottoman rule was rapidly taking place. Masses of serfs flowed from Northern Hungary - which had not been occupied - to the depopulated southern areas, and they in turn were replaced by Slovak, Southern Slav and German settlers. Due to large-scale immigration, the population doubled in seventy years, reaching over eight million. At the same time, however, the number of the non-Hungarian population was greater that the Hungarian.

The idyllic state of affairs between the dynasty and the Hungarian nobility began to deteriorate around the middle of the century. At first the Hungarian part of the compromise involved the maintenance of the county system, and nobles who pledged allegiance to the Hapsburgs were allowed to retain their estates. The authority of the baron-controlled Hungarian Diet was also maintained. In return, the Hungarian ruling class again recognized the Hapsburg dynasty as the monarchs of Hungary. In 1723 Charles III (1711-1740) induced the Hungarian barons to accept the Pragmatic Sanction, which recognized the rights of inheritance of the female offspring of the Hapsburg dynasty and the indivisibility of the Hapsburg Empire.

The Hungarian estates enthusiastically supported Maria Theresa (1740-1780). Perhaps the most blatant example of their enthusiasm is the well-known engraving of the young queen holding her baby son (later King Joseph II) as the members of the nobility zealously declare that they will sacrifice their "life and blood" to save the throne from the Prussian rival. Naturally, they shouted in Latin and, according to contemporary gossip, they added very quietly: "sed avenam non", that is, they would be willing to sacrifice their blood, but unwilling to supply oats to feed the army horses. Naturally, reluctance was not confined to the oats, and in the course of time, the conflict deepened between the Hungarian nobility, who insisted on the retention of their feudal prerogatives - i.e., the outdated serf system and exemption from taxation - and the Hapsburg administration. When Joseph II (1780-1790), the most interesting and impressive personality of all the Hapsburgs, tried to implement reforms based on the ideals of enlightened absolutism, the resistance of the nobility grew stronger. The decrees easing the oppression of the serfs were only successfully enforced after the repression of a peasant uprising in Transylvania which frightened landowners sufficiently for them to tolerate the implementation of these measures. In the end, Joseph II was enforced to cancel nearly all of his reforms on his death-bed.

A positive feature of the resistance against the policies of Joseph II was the political programme designed to safeguard the Hungarian language against Germanisation. Consequently, Hungarian literature was given a new impetus. In the final decade of the century, under the reign of Francis I (1792-1835) who considered that his principal task was "to put the brakes on the demon of revolution," there emerged a section of the lesser nobility and the intelligentsia which followed the events in France with active interest. It was from their ranks that a small group of very high intellectual calibre was formed whose main political objective, besides the independence of the country, was its transformation to a bourgeois society. Their leader was the lawyer József Hajnóczy, and the group included the poet János Batsányi, the writer Ferenc Kazinczy, and the economist Gergely Berzeviczky. When Ignác Martinovics took over leadership in 1794, the group was transformed into a revolutionary Jacobin organization. The organization was shortlived, and the membership must have still been only a few hundred when the imperial police arrested the leaders, who were executed in Buda in 1795.


© Zoltán Halász
English translation by Zsuzsa Béres
Translation revised by J.E. Sollosy

Bibliographic data:
Title: Hungary (4th edition)
Authors: Zoltán Halász / András Balla (photo) / Zsuzsa Béres (translation)
Published by Corvina, in 1998
159 pages
ISBN: 963-13-4129-1, 963-13-4727-3