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National Romanticism: The Formation of National Movements

Balázs Trencsényi
Michal Kopeček

Chapter IV. The Nation and Its Neighbors in Europe: Problems of Coexistence

Oration on the matter of the Hungarian and Slavic nationalities

Miklós Wesselényi
Traduction de Dávid Oláh

Texte intégral

1Title: Szózat a magyar és szláv nemzetiség ügyében (Oration on the matter of the Hungarian and Slavic nationalities)

2Originally published: Leipzig, Otto Wiegand, 1843

3Language: Hungarian

4The excerpts used are from the modern edition: Miklós Wesselényi, Szózat a magyar és szláv nemzetiség ügyében (Budapest: Európa, 1992), pp. 184– 194.

About the author

5Miklós Wesselényi [Zsibó (Rom. Jibou, present-day Romania), 1796 – Pest, 1850]: politician, political writer. He was the scion of a Transylvanian oppositional aristocratic family, his father having achieved fame for his cultural patriotism and for his spectacular clashes with the central administration, which resulted in his imprisonment by Joseph II. The young Miklós was educated by private tutors, and was also influenced by Ferenc Kazinczy, who was a friend of his family. Already in his youth Wesselényi attracted wider attention with his intellectual capacities. In the 1810– 1820s, he made a number of trips—on one occasion with István Széchenyi—to Italy, France, and England and became conscious of the socio-economic gap between Hungary and Western Europe. In the 1830s he emerged as one of the protagonists of the opposition movement, being active in the Transylvanian and Hungarian Diets as well. At the beginning, he was the closest ally of Széchenyi, but gradually he became more radical. The Viennese government disapproved of Wesselényi’s public activities, and he was indicted on charges of disloyalty to the Crown. In the spring of 1838 he was in Pest when the Danube flooded the city and through his heroic rescue efforts he saved hundreds of people, which earned him great repute. In 1839, after litigation lasting for four years, he was sentenced to three years imprisonment. He never served his term, as due to an illness he lost his sight in one eye and was released for treatment in a Silesian sanatorium (Gräfenberg; present-day Láznĕ Jeseník, Czech Republic). In 1844 he became totally blind and withdrew from public life. Nevertheless, he continued to publish political articles. In 1848, already seriously ill, he participated in the Transylvanian Diet when it declared union with Hungary. Soon after this, however, he came to consider the revolution as doomed to fail and left the country for Gräfenberg. He died in April 1850 on his way back to Hungary. He is considered as one of the iconic figures of the Hungarian Reform Age.

6Main works: A régi híres ménesek egyike megszűnésének okairól [On the causes of the dissolution of one of the old and famous studs] (1829); Balítéletekről [On misjudgments] (1833); Szózat a magyar és szláv nemzetiség ügyében [Oration on the matter of the Hungarian and Slavic nationalities] (1843); Teendők a lótenyésztés körül [Tasks regarding horse-breeding] (1847).


7The intellectual itinerary of Wesselényi is in many ways representative of the evolution of the Hungarian ‘liberal nationalism’ of the Reform Age. In the 1820s he subscribed to the vision of István Széchenyi, which sought to promote the social life of the nobility—with casinos, horse-races and cultural foundations—and also hoped to modernize the economical structure of the country by adopting new technologies and developing the infrastructure. In his political activities of the early 1830s, however, Wesselényi went beyond this program towards a more encompassing insitutional reform, and his stance towards Vienna became increasingly conflictual. Building on traditional oppositional rhetoric, he emphasized the constitutional harm caused by the government and tried to mobilize the institutional framework of the estates in order to implement a wide range of social and political reforms. He thus established a conceptual link between the ‘liberties’ of Hungarian ‘ancient constitutionalism’ and modern ‘civic liberty.’

8This agenda of reform thus embraced not only the securing of more freedom, e.g., freedom of the press, for the traditional ‘political nation’, but extending the framework of the nation to the underprivileged strata by emancipating the serfs. While Wesselényi was a fervent supporter of these reforms, he admitted that such a profound transformation had its dangers as well, as the entrance of the previously underprivileged and overwhelmingly non-Hungarian masses, who nursed an ardent hatred against their erstwhile oppressors, could have catastrophical consequences for the entire Hungarian nation. Looking at the example of the Western nation-states, Wesselényi came to the conclusion that the old ties of hierarchy that had bound the society of the ancien régime together needed to be supplemented by a new national solidarity.

9Therefore, in contrast to Széchenyi’s more reserved position, Wesselényi suggested that the extension of rights should entail the ‘extension of nationality’ even to the ethnically non-Hungarian inhabitants of the country, who made up around 55 percent of the population. In his understanding, the Hungarian reform movement, facing the double challenge of Austrian autocracy and the alternative national projects of the Slavic peoples, could only be successful if it managed to develop a general feeling of national allegiance among the population. Hence, one of the crucial theoretical and practical problems was to find a solution for the potential contradiction between the process of Hungarian nation-building and the exigencies of co-existence in a region characterized by ethnic plurality. He was convinced that this problem could be solved only in a broader international context.

10The fate of the Polish uprising of 1830–1831 was a formative experience for Wesselényi’s generation. The crushing of the uprising by the Tsarist troops convinced many liberal politicians that the freedom of Europe’s small nations was threatened particularly by Russia. At the same time, Wesselényi hoped that the ‘spirit of the age’ would eventually introduce constitutionalism into the Habsburg Empire. If Austria could be turned into a model-state for liberalism, it could promote the reconstruction of the whole of Europe along such lines, by catalyzing a constitutionalist movement in Prussia, creating a Greek and a South-Slavic state in the Balkans, and reconstituting Poland. The thrust of his argument, which had originally been directed to the Hungarian situation, thus led to a pan-European vision of liberal nationalism, in which the national units were moulded into federal states. In this vision the Hungarian constitutional tradition, jealously preserved by the ‘political nation,’ could be re-evaluated as a potential catalyst, not only for Hungarian modernization, but also for a liberal transformation of the entire Habsburg Empire.

11In regard to the Habsburg lands, Wesselényi proposed a federalist solution, based on the autonomy of the historical provinces (in Wesselényi’s proposal these federal entities should be the German, Italian and Hungarian territories of the Empire, plus the envisioned Bohemian, Galician and Illyrian autonomies). As for Hungary proper, Wesselényi secured for the Croats a completely different status than for all other nationalities of the Crown of Saint Stephen— accepting their claims to distinct nationhood on historical/legal grounds. The other nationalities, however, were expected to subordinate themselves to the Hungarian ‘political nation.’ In his opinion, the state as such could not be culturally neutral (since nationality and the constitution are only two sides of the same coin). At the same time, he emphasized that national development was ultimately subordinated to the formation of civil society.

12It is indicative of his position that in his political writings of the 1830– 1840s, rather than describing his native Transylvania as a separate entity in a potential federal framework, he was a fervent supporter of its union with Hungary. In this he was influenced mainly by the consideration that the incentives for modernization, especially concerning the situation of the serfs, were coming from the Hungarian parliament, while the Transylvanian institutional system was much more archaic and immobile. Thus, it was the interest of the overwhelming majority of the population, regardless of nationality, to join Hungary and thus enjoy the fruits of the liberal reforms.

13In sum, the ‘Oration’ is a paradigmatic text from the Hungarian liberal nationalist camp on the nationality question. Wesselényi’s concept contains the key elements of this discursive tradition, and thereby also exposes its theoretical contradictions, which came to the fore during the Revolution of 1848, as well as its ambivalent stance towards the nationalities. While he was willing to give extensive civil rights to all citizens of Hungary regardless of their ethnic background, he considered institutional self-organization by the nationalities as potentially harmful to the ‘common good’ of the country. Most importantly, Wesselényi thought of the Slavic ‘awakening’ in the territory of Hungary in terms of a Pan-Slav agitation instigated from outside, which thus turned the otherwise justifiable demands for civic liberty in a retrograde direction. He considered it an ‘unnatural’ alliance of plebeian and aristocratic agitators, seemingly united only for the sake of the cultivation of national literature, but, in the long run, serving the interests of the tyrannical Russian Empire. It was along these lines that, after the traumas of 1849, Hungarian nationalism again took up some of his arguments, though increasingly separating them from their original liberal connotations.


Oration on the matter of the Hungarian and Slavic nationalities


16Austria is not a purely unrestricted power and she cannot be such. As a Hungarian sovereign she is restricted, and only as such can she be sovereign in Hungary. This restrictedness and her unlimited power in other countries is a constant object of derision and a mutual affront for both parties. At one place she must profess and follow principles that she refutes and shuns elsewhere. She cannot parade in such a simultaneously limited and unlimited double role. But were she a completely unrestricted power, she still would not be able to play a leading role as such. The queen, the leader and the chief representative of autocracy is Russia. Every other power hoisting the banner of autocracy must perforce be under her leadership and superiority. Austria, as a power not everywhere and thus not entirely unrestricted, can only be in a subordinate position in this respect; and even in such a position, we have seen from how many sides and by how many factors her survival is endangered and challenged. However, if she adopts the watch-word of constitutionalism, and if she thus becomes a leader of civilization and lawful and peaceful progress, she will certainly become the first power in Europe. She will gain such a primacy, almost lifting her above having to fear any other power, that she will offend or oppress no one, and she will not disturb or threaten either materially or spiritually the European balance either by her commerce, her military power or her policies. […]

17Austria and Prussia should hoist the standard of constitutionalism together. Every prince and every nation of Germany, nay, every constitutional country would then join this alliance and become united in it. This would become a real Holy Alliance.

18If, as an already constitutional power in Hungary, Austria wishes to cherish and enhance the reputation of the constitution of this country with honorable intention and a firm will; if she lends a helping hand in repairing its deficiencies, in supplementing and correcting its faultier or weaker pages in accordance with propriety and the requirements of the age, employing all her lawful power for this end: then this country would with an incredible speed become a power capable of elevating the strength and glory of her beloved sovereign and of increasing the weight of her power in the European balance— capable by herself, but even more so with the other countries of the state endowed with a similar constitution.

19Furthermore, the other provinces of Austria should also be given a constitution.

20By granting a constitution and a representative system to Lombardy, this country and this nation would be bound to us by the links of zeal and loyalty defying every vicissitude. Its strength would become formidable, and it would be completely and enduringly secured from any fancy of independence and revolutionary temptations.

21The German provinces of Austria, Styria and Tyrol should form a constitutional body together. Silesia, even though separated from them geographically, as a predominantly German province should nevertheless belong to them. In Carinthia and Carniola the German element is perhaps developed and widespread enough for these provinces to join the former. In any case, due consideration should be shown towards the Slavic nationalities living there. Their position could be similar to that of the Croatians in Hungary or the Saxons in Transylvania.

22Bohemia and Moravia should form a separate constitutional Slavic country.

23Likewise, Galicia should possess a constitution of its own and exist as a purely Polish province.

24The part of Istria inhabited by Italians could be united with Lombardy, and its Slavic part with Dalmatia.

25Dalmatia as a land owned on the basis of the inherited right of the Hungarian Crown and as a complementary part of the Hungarian Crown should be annexed to Croatia and Slavonia. In the latter provinces, besides granting the intactness of the Slavic nationalities and with a full flourishing in their civic interior affairs, the favors of the Hungarian constitution could be extended, the pre-condition of possessing these favors being their close and irresolvable connection with Hungary.

26The excuse and counter-argument that this or that people are not yet mature enough to have a constitution, and that granting and establishing a constitution is a precarious and dangerous endeavor, has become outmoded and hackneyed. It is indeed useful and even necessary that a constitution should be based on historical antecedents and fundaments, and it should indeed be rooted in the character and inner life of a nation; but the fact that it is possible to grant a constitution to nations that are not by any means among the most developed ones, and that it is possible to set it in place without any danger or unrest is amply illustrated by the example of Wallachia and Moldavia, where a constitution was simultaneously granted and established without any disturbance.

27With constant regard for mutual tolerance and consideration it would surely not be an impossible task to set up commercial relations between the aforementioned countries in the context of their adoption of a constitution. This would seem all the more feasible because in an alliance of states the members, being connected by constitutional ties and therefore by common interests and practical circumstances, would in all probability be ready to make mutual sacrifices both in order to show a regard for the interests of the other members and to promote the good of the common whole. […]

28If Austria were such a constitutional power, made up of countries and nations founded upon their own nationalities but materially and spiritually united by related interests and by a devotion to their common sovereign, then the many foreign elements within Austria, which now confront each other as well as her with hostility, some indeed even menacing her, would become her steadfast allies and factors of her strength. The Russian influence upon the Slavic population would cease, as they would no longer have anything to hope from it, and in their constitutional position they would gain benefits such as they could not expect from that unrestricted power. The venom of revolutionary aspirations would also be ineffective, because the nations would already possess things—and possess them through peaceful means, blessing their benign prince for it—for which they might otherwise have resorted to destructive revolutionary attempts to obtain: namely, a life under a constitution but founded upon their nationality.

29If Austria as a giant of constitutionality, together with a similarly constitutional Prussia, were to come forward as the head and leader of constitutionality and civilization, and gather under this glorious banner all the countries and nations of Germany, which would regard them as protectors of their nationality and constitutional life; if the whole of civilized Europe were to see in these two powers the mighty patrons of lawfulness, national independence, enlightenment and free trade; see them as powers just as ready and able to fight with vigor and resolution against a crude and unrestricted autocracy as against licence and thousand-headed revolutionary tyranny—why the world then wouldn’t witness the emergence of a protective power uniting nations and sovereigns that would permanently ensure the future of Europe amidst any future turn of events and circumstances? [...]

30If the constitutional holy alliance founded in the aforementioned manner were to be in existence when the last hour of the age-worn Turkish domination in their European realms was at hand—by whatever cause this should come about—Europe could be certain that the disintegrating empire, or most of it, would neither be engulfed by Russia, which would thus come to preponderate over the other powers, nor would the flame of civil wars provoked by a revolutionary spirit flare up in various parts of the empire and brute force and disorder prevail.

31Through the intercession of this alliance and under its shelter and security, separate and independent countries would hopefully emerge from the collapsing empire, countries with constitutions rooted in their nationality, like so many new conquests of civilization, so many new and exuberant fields for the improving intellect and the development of spiritual and material prosperity.

32The image of a solemnly impressive and majestic future would appear. The one-time Byzantium would emerge as the capital of a Christian dynasty and nation, but not of a nation pampered and corrupted by vices as she used to be, but of a country with a vision of the great aims of the development of civility and constitutionality, young, guided by sobriety and rising in strength; the seat of a king elected from the dynasties of Germany in whom the crafts, the sciences and trade would find a zealous patron.

33Enlarged with the neighboring territories inhabited by Greeks which have till now remained outside the bastion of her constitutional life, present-day Greece would become, as a worthy successor of her ancient glory and culture, a deserving and useful member in the glorious family of Europe’s constitutional powers through the effect of her ever improving and developing constitution under her present reigning House.

34The Slavic territories under Turkish rule, such as Bosnia and Bulgaria, would form, together with Serbia, a Slavic or Illyrian kingdom endowed with a constitution adapted to their nationality and level of culture; the throne of this kingdom would be occupied by a member of the Austrian reigning family.

  • 1 Wesselényi calculated in ‘German land miles,’ which equals ca. 7500 meters.

35Wallachia and Moldavia together are by no means too small to make up a kingdom, either with regard to their territory (2,000 square miles)1 or their population (3,200,000). Their position is so advantageous, and nature has endowed them with so many riches that their intellectually developing nation could secure for them a not insignificant place of general benefit in the civilized world. These two principalities are already constitutional. And to unite these two related constitutions and to correct their poorer or defective aspects would surely be a much easier task than it proved to be to provide newly fashioned constitutions all at once for those territories under and accustomed to the Turkish yoke, as in fact happened in 1831 without any detrimental consequences. [...]

36The elevation of Poland to national and constitutional independence would be not only an indispensable precondition for Europe to reach such a degree of constitutionality and the lawful triumph of its nationalities, but also an irrevocable tribute to eternal justice. [...]

37The views and wishes elaborated so far by no means set out or presume the downfall or even a real diminution of Russia. Her area is so vast, her re-sources are so stupendous, she can and must do so much internally that centuries of activity requiring vigorous and concentrated labor lie ahead of her if she wishes to elevate her population, culture and trade to the rank that they are capable of attaining. That this is indeed her laudable goal, and that she truly has no wish to subjugate Europe and exert an oppressive supremacy over it or disturb its strength and peace, all this she will have ample opportunities to prove during the changes presumably soon to be expected in the East. That her activities related to the East have not been motivated by plans to obtain booty and extend her power she will be able to demonstrate by not opposing the formation of constitutional countries to be established on the basis of the nationalities living there. For, since the establishment of such countries would promote civilization and thus active transport and trade between the nations and the ensuing progress of industry and science, and have a beneficial influence over the whole of mankind, bringing intellectual as well as material profit to it, Russia will, by espousing their formation, show that she too has this common profit and prosperity at heart. And as these countries would safeguard Europe’s stability against her threatening predomination, such support provided for them will demonstrate that she does not wish to upset this stability, and that she values the tranquillity and strength of Europe to such a degree that she agrees to offer such a further reassuring guarantee against her preponderance beyond that represented by the inconstant factor of the personality and moderation of the sovereigns sitting upon her throne.

38And that her policy is informed by such an appreciation and by sound principles with regard to Europe’s peace and strength, this she can prove above all by showing a readiness to effect the construction of a bastion without which Europe may forever feel threatened by Russian power or the conquering spirit of any of her rulers. This bastion is without doubt Poland.

39If she approves of the transformation of this nation into an independent constitutional country under its own king, not a Russian but from some other, for instance, Prussian dynasty, then—and only then—shall everything said about the Russian claims to supremacy and even to universal monarchy become simply a slander.


1 Wesselényi calculated in ‘German land miles,’ which equals ca. 7500 meters.


Dávid Oláh (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2007

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