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National Romanticism: The Formation of National Movements

Balázs Trencsényi
Michal Kopeček

Chapter III. The Nationalization of Space


István Széchenyi
Traduction de Dávid Oláh

Texte intégral

1Title: Hunnia

2Originally published: Originally written in 1835, first published by János Török and printed in Pest by Gusztáv Heckenast in 1858

3Language: Hungarian

4The excerpts used are from the reprint: István Széchenyi, Hunnia (Budapest: Közgazdasági és Jogi Könyvkiadó, 1985), pp. 5–11.

About the author

5István Széchenyi [1791, Vienna – 1860, Döbling (Austria)]: politician and political writer. He was the scion of one of the most prestigious Catholic aristocratic families of the country. His father, Ferenc Széchényi, was famous for his cultural interests and founded the national library. As a young soldier István Széchenyi fought against Napoleon and led a bohemian life in the high society of Vienna. Later, he underwent a profound spiritual transformation and, influenced by his travels to England, he started to champion the modernization of the economy, society, and intellectual life of Hungary, initiating the foundation of the Academy of Sciences and the National Casino, proposing the regulation of rivers, building stone bridges, and introducing horse races. His political and economic essays stimulated the development of liberal political thinking in Hungary. In the 1840s he assumed a more conciliatory position towards Vienna, concentrating on socio-economic gains rather than on symbolic and constitutional issues. He also opposed Kossuth’s assimilatory nationalism and became increasingly critical of the opposition movement, which was mostly based on the political culture of the country gentry. He accepted the Ministry of Transportation in the revolutionary government of Hungary (1848), but he resigned when the break with Austria seemed inevitable. Széchenyi suffered a mental breakdown in 1848 and spent the subsequent years in a sanatorium. In the 1850s he started to publish again, and grew increasingly critical of the Austrian ‘neo-absolutist’ regime. He committed suicide after a clash with the authorities following the publication of one of his pamphlets. Subsequently, he became ‘canonized’ as the ‘Greatest Hungarian’—the symbol of Hungarian national awakening.

6Main works: Hitel [Credit] (1830); Világ [Light] (1831); Stádium [Stadium] (1833); Kelet népe [People of the East] (1841); Politikai programtöredékek [Fragments of a political program] (1847); Blick auf den anonymen Rückblick [A look at an anonymous backward look] (1859).


7Széchenyi’s political philosophy is based on the notion of the accumulative progress of civility characteristic of the British (and preeminently the Scottish) Enlightenment. He sees the road to national recovery as a process of ‘polishing’ the manners of the community. Civilization “conquers in due time even the most tyrannical power”; therefore, the task should be to create a specifically Hungarian form of civilization, otherwise social progress might affect “a deadly blow on our originality and peculiarity.” In the 1830s and 1840s he formulated a program of enhancing communication through means both formal (such as credit institutions, and the development of infrastructure) and informal (casinos, horse races). Apart from the transformations in the socio-economic sphere, however, the notion of enhancing civility by the intensification of communication had another crucial aspect that represented a serious theoretical and also practical problem for the emerging liberal reformists. Obviously, this was the issue of the multi-ethnic composition of the territories of ‘historical Hungary,’ with over fifty percent of its inhabitants having a mother tongue other than Hungarian.

8While his early writings (for example, ‘Credit’) dealt mainly with socioeconomic issues, in Hunnia Széchenyi turned to the problem of nation-building, the national language, and the overall question of the nationalities. While the text was published only later and thus did not have an immediate impact, it is arguably Széchenyi’s most compact argument concerning these issues. In this text he sought to make his audience conscious of the ‘national aspect’ of the country’s backwardness. He asserted that the most immediate danger is the “fatal division” of the national community. But, according to him, the root of this division was not so much ethnic but rather socio-cultural, with the cosmopolitan aristocracy set against the uncultivated masses (characteristically, Széchenyi included the country-gentry in the second category). Hungarian public culture thus contained inorganic fragments of Western European culture removed from their context and mixed up with the self-complacent backwardness of the local tradition.

9In his understanding, the closing of this gap and the development of a unified Hungarian national public is conditioned by the success of modernization. At the same time, the continuity of the pre-modern Hungarian political nation with the emerging modern nation does not exclude the other ethno-cultural communities from any kind of national existence. The Magyar character of his envisioned ‘Hunnia’ is a matter of de facto proportions of vested interests and not of some ‘metaphysical’ principle: the Magyars hold the greatest estates, they make up the relatively largest community, they have a splendid past, a national fervor. Most importantly, they are ‘alone’: contrary to the other communities, which all have their kin-states outside of the realm of Saint Stephen, the destiny of the Magyars is intertwined by fate with the future of Hungarian statehood. Altogether, this vision of ‘nation-building’ aimed more at the non-privileged ethnic Hungarian component of the society than at the nationalities.

10While Széchenyi’s conceptions formed the master-narrative for the early wave of the reform movement, later he came to clash with the more radically disposed, gentry-based generation of politicians. One of the main points of conflict was precisely the nationality question. Reverting to a generally more conservative political vision, Széchenyi advocated a gradual and less assimilatory stance, whereas the liberal nationalists, led by Lajos Kossuth, inclined towards a French-type democratic nationhood, which would naturally attract all the “freedom-loving citizens” of the country to abandon their ethno-cultural allegiance in exchange for civic and socio-economic emancipation. In the early 1840s the divergence of opinions led to a lasting controversy between Széchenyi and Kossuth, and their clash became a paradigmatic focus of political self-positioning throughout modern Hungarian history.

11In fact, practically every period has constructed its own image of Széchenyi, abstracted from the real complexities of his personality and political agenda. In the inter-war period he became the central figure of the official ideology of the authoritarian regime. This implied playing down the liberal elements of his thought and the accentuation of its conservative components, his moderate position on the question of assimilation being reinterpeted as an expression of ethno-centrism and a rejection of ethnic mixing. This reevaluation was mainly due to a very popular interpretation put forward by the conservative historian, Gyula Szekfű. While he lost his central position during the Communist regime (even though he was always part of the official Pantheon), the 1990s brought another wave in the Széchenyi cult, presenting him as symbol of both Europeanization and national self-assertion.



13The populations of Hungary speak many languages and profess many faiths. Tolerance breeds tolerance. And, thus, if the ruler of the Austrian Empire in his profound wisdom can do nothing better than not espousing any denomination to the detriment of others, it likewise appears expedient to show a like tolerance by leaving the diverse peoples of Austria in peace to speak their languages and follow their customs freely.

14Thus is it understandable that a non-Hungarian may not feel any particular liking towards the Hungarian language and has no mind to grant it supremacy over any others. But that a Hungarian should reject the Hungarian tongue is, in my understanding, unheard of amongst any of mankind. Impostors and traitors have lived in every age amidst every nation; but such a one who will cast aside all his national characteristics voluntarily and by his own choice, who will, abandoning his mother-tongue and forgetting everything that binds an honest man to his homeland, eradicate himself willingly from the ranks of patriots and stamp the seal of hybridity upon his forehead with his own hands – such a one, were you to traverse all the four climes of the globe, you could only find in the land of Hunnia. [...]

15If the Hungarian nation is gradually melting away all by itself, and the greater intellectual weight of foreign countries resulting from their natural and characteristic traits is, instead of ennobling and improving her, constantly tormenting and eating away at her—what a mighty calamity this is by itself; and isn't it the curse of the vengeful heavens that like patricides, we ourselves should hasten and advance the perishing of our last treasure? What kind of partiality, what kind of mania can impel us to such an unnatural act? Do we perhaps fancy that foreigners will esteem us higher if we exhibit coldness and indifference towards our homeland and tread upon our nation? Do we fancy that they will raise high a man perfidious to his homeland, a traitor? Oh no! Let us be assured that those who praise our degeneration and hybridity merely want to deceive us and use us for their selfish goals. Just as we in our untainted youth cannot esteem anyone who is not a loyal son of his homeland, the untainted critic will hold us in no esteem if we do not respect our homeland; I said in our untainted youth; now how many of us have grown bitter and turned rancid by the hideousness of all the legal sophisms and selfish customs that we can encounter and experience day by day around us, and from whose venomous breath the greatest care can hardly save us.

16Instead of a cordial harmony, which would allow the one to put up with the faults of the other and let them march forward with joint efforts, the Hungarian estates withdraw and turn their backs to each other, nurturing feelings of mutual enmity.

17The one more sophisticated in foreign manners derides the generally clumsy or unpolished behavior of the native son. And indeed it is undeniable that amongst the privileged orders of Hungary there is such a great number of unmannered, or rather ill-mannered fellows, or we should say beings—for never would a well-bred man want such a one to be his fellow—that perhaps no homeland can boast of a larger host of such persons. They are worse even than a caricature, because the latter heightens the most distinguishing features of its object, while there is hardly any distinguishing feature amidst this stupefied and brutish flock of our compatriots.

18Those, however, who are more at home in Hungary have not the slightest regard for those superior qualities by virtue of which the others stand above them. And it is true that these superior qualities are most often restricted to a tiny grasp of French, some superficial command of English and the acquisition of slightly more refined manners abroad.

19Now if I may ask, what, or rather who appears the more ridiculous in the eyes of the unbiased observer? The unsophisticated native Hungarian who, having abandoned his original crude but manly poise, and now neither at home in Hungarian nor in German, does not even know when to put on a coat and when to wear tails, when is the time for winter boots and when for shoes; who makes so many and such deep bows during a single visit as others during a whole year; who has no skill in riding, fencing, dancing, swimming or gymnastics at all; who, when meeting his like after one or two days’ absence, exchanges kisses and slobbers to the point of nausea; who, if we take a closer look at matters of cleanliness, perhaps administers the least water to his body of all creations of God; who doesn’t know where and how to turn to when in company, and thus, particularly in the presence of the fair sex, either stands taciturnly at the door out of excessive shyness, or perhaps excessive vanity, or seeks to appear original with his unbridled and roguish behaviour.

20Is it this that is ridiculous, or the Illustrissimus and Excellentissimus, who doesn’t understand his mother-tongue, or if he does, he doesn’t teach it to his children and particularly to his daughters; he is never in his homeland, except for a visit to his estates to collect his income; he never under any circumstance contributes to the concerns of his homeland, he doesn’t take the least part in public matters but finds his whole scope of activities, not like a Lucullus, for he lacks the required intellect for that, but like a Wallachian boyar, in keeping a better cook or a more lascivious courtesan!

21Which of them, if I may ask, is a bitterer mockery of the patriot, of Man? […]

22We, the wretched privileged, have abandoned the crude but proud manliness of our ancestors. Nor would it become us now any more than a citadel upon the rocks or a fortress with swampy moats would become our present shepherding way of life. But we have not yet acquired the better taste and those finer manners through which the qualities of both the spirit and the soul find expression to their utmost capacity; some of our representatives started to learn to swim last year, and some of their wives have been learning Hungarian since last year, etc. As for the members of the other House, even this much cannot be claimed. And thus we are caught between two kinds of existence, which is the most perilous situation for the fate of a nation. […]


Dávid Oláh (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2007

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