The Hungarian statesman and orator Louis, or Lajos, Kossuth (1802-1894) was the foremost leader of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848-1849 and the symbol of Magyar nationalism.
The son of an impoverished Lutheran nobleman, Louis Kossuth was born at Monok in northern Hungary on Sept. 19, 1802. He attended the famed Protestant schools of Eperjes (now Prešov in Slovakia) and Sárospatak, known for their Magyar patriotic and anti-Hapsburg sentiments. This Kuruc spirit became part of his nature, remaining with him throughout his long life.
After practicing law in his native Zemplén county (1823-1832), Kossuth was sent to the national Diet at Pozsony (Pressburg, Bratislava). There, in the exciting atmosphere of the reform debates and under the over-powering influence of the great reformer Count István (Stephen) Széchenyi, he soon developed his own socio-political creed. This included a belief in the necessity of Hungary's thorough social, economic, and political transformation and the termination of its subordination to Vienna. He aired his views in the form of "dietary proceedings" (Országgyülési tudósìtások), which were not verbatim records but opinionated personal impressions so inflammatory in tone that they soon landed Kossuth in prison (1837-1840).
Released under an amnesty (May 1840), Kossuth agitated for civil liberties and national independence in his newly founded paper, the Pesti Hirlap (Pest Journal). His popular views and beguiling style immediately gained attention and support. But they also alarmed the government and the less radical reformers, among them Count Széchenyi, who disagreed with Kossuth on actual issues (for example, complete independence) and felt his tactless agitation would lead to more political oppression. Széchenyi was convinced that Kossuth's relative intolerance toward national minorities, although stemming from a conviction that Magyar nationalism was the only real liberal and cultural force in Hungary (a conviction shared by Karl Marx), could only end in catastrophe.
Kossuth, defending himself in the brilliant polemical pamphlet Reply to Count Stephen Széchenyi (1841), continued agitating in the Pesti Hirlap until July 1844, when, upon governmental pressure, he lost the editorship. Unable to establish another paper, he poured his energies into Védegylet, a society to protect Hungarian industry through boycotting Austrian goods.
The Hungarian Revolution
In 1847 Kossuth was again sent to the Diet, where he soon assumed the leadership of the liberal opposition. His great moment came on March 3, 1848. At the news of the February revolution in France, he delivered a powerful speech in the Diet, demanding immediate implementation of the liberal program and calling for constitutionalism throughout the empire.
After Prince Metternich's regime collapsed, Kossuth became minister of finance in the new government of Count Lajos Batthyány in Hungary. His economic and political activities tended to increase the tension both between Hungary and the dynasty and in his relations to the South Slavs, who soon rebelled, joining with Viennese reaction. When growing radicalism and the dynasty's double-dealings led to the fall of the moderate government (September 28), Kossuth assumed full control, becoming chairman of the newly founded Committee of National Defense and the life and soul of the revolution.
The next few months brought out the most in the undoubtedly brilliant Kossuth. With elements of greatness (courage, magnetism, the ability to accomplish the impossible) weaknesses in his personality (intransigence, jealousy, lack of realism) also came to light. Particularly unfortunate were his inability to come to terms with the nationalities, his jealousy and suspicion of his best general (Arthur von Görgey), and his unrealistic dethronization act of April 14, 1849, which contributed much to Russian intervention.
Despite notable victories, Russia's intervention made Hungary's situation untenable. Kossuth fled Hungary (Aug. 11, 1849) and, after 2 years' internment in Turkey, made a brilliant but futile English and American campaign to gain support for Hungarian independence. His plan to create a "Danubian Confederation" (1861), while commendable, came too late and was too anti-Hapsburg to be realistic.
With the establishment of Austria-Hungary in 1867, Kossuth's hopes faded altogether. He died at 92 in Turin, Italy, on March 20, 1894. He was buried in Budapest, still an idol of the Magyar peasant masses.
Further Reading on Louis Kossuth
The first edition of Kossuth's Complete Works (13 vols., 1880-1911) is neither complete nor sufficiently scholarly. A much better critical edition is now in progress (15 vols. to date, 1948-). The Select Speeches of Kossuth, edited by F. M. Newman (1854), and his Memoires of My Exile (2 vols., 1880), are also available in English.
Although works about Kossuth are numerous, his definitive biography has not yet been written; and reliable, scholarly works about him are scarce, even in Hungarian. The available English language books are neither scholarly nor critical. Otto Zarek, Kossuth (trans. 1937), is a popular, novelistic account by a Kossuth enthusiast; and Endre Sebestyén, Kossuth: A Magyar Apostle of World Democracy (1950), is a brief laudatory pamphlet, with an emphasis on Kossuth's American connections. For Kossuth's role in the revolutionary movement of 1848 the student can turn to Lewis Namier, 1848: The Revolution of the Intellectuals (1946); Arnold Whitbridge, Man in Crisis: The Revolutions of 1848 (1949); and Priscilla Robertson, Revolutions of 1848 (1952).