Revolution was in the air across Europe in 1848, with insurrections arising from the isle of Sicily to the royal palace of Paris to the streets of Berlin and beyond. This widespread wave of rebellion also swept through Hungary in the early months of that year, erupting into an insurgency that ignited in Budapest with the dramatic recital of a poem that still stirs the souls of patriotic Magyars to this day. While many exact details from the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 are now obscured by history, the rebellion definitely began on March 15th – now solemnly observed as a national holiday.
When he walked from Debrecen to Budapest in 1844 to begin life anew as a professional writer, young Sándor Petőfi was a talented poet and former actor with passionate opinions about life in Hungary under Austria’s oppressive Hapsburg Empire. Soon Petőfi earned great popularity for his epic fairy tale János Vitéz and several other lighthearted folklore-inspired poems, but amid the boisterous nightlife scene of Pest’s Pilvax coffeehouse he joined a community of fellow artists and intellectuals in vociferously deriding the political status quo.
With the arrival of 1848 and its international turmoil, the radicals that gathered at Pilvax were openly advocating global revolution, spurred on by the fractious state of Hungary’s own aristocrat-dominated government. In early March, when news of the uprising in Paris reached Budapest, Lajos Kossuth – a brilliant reformist politician with extraordinary oratory skills – made a speech to demand a parliamentary government for Hungary, launching him to the forefront of Europe’s revolutionary movements, and further encouraging Petőfi and his Pilvax compatriots to do more than just talk about insurrection. In the following days, these dissidents wrote a list of 12 Points demanding comprehensive democratic rights (such as freedom of the press and the liberation of political prisoners) for the Hungarian people, while Petőfi composed his poetic masterpiece, the “National Song”.
On the morning of March 15th, the revolutionaries gathered at Pilvax and adorned the lapels over their hearts with ribbons in Hungary’s national colors of red, white, and green, before marching into the streets of Budapest to visit various plazas and loudly recite their 12 Points, gathering a fast-growing crowd of sympathizers to join their movement. Before long, thousands of fired-up Budapest citizens were parading through the city, defying censorship by seizing the presses to print and distribute the 12 Points, and stopping before the grand stairway of the then-new National Museum, where Petőfi stood in front of the spirited masses and zealously delivered his “National Song”:
“On your feet, Magyar, the homeland calls! The time is here, now or never! Shall we be slaves or free? This is the question, choose your answer! By the God of the Hungarians We vow, We vow, that we will be slaves No longer!”
The “National Song” continues for several more equally fiery verses, and by the time Petőfi finished his recital, the choice of the crowd was clear – the demonstrating throng crossed the Danube to Buda to rally in front of the Hapsburg governing council, where the emperor’s representatives fearfully agreed to enact the 12 Points. Hungary’s Revolution of 1848 had begun with remarkable success, and not a single shot was fired on that fateful day… but unfortunately, these celebrated ides of March heralded great tragedies to come for the Magyar people within a matter of months.
Soon after the uprising’s auspicious genesis, Kossuth was leading the newly empowered Hungarian nation, establishing the country’s independence with endeavors like minting separate coinage and raising an army for self-defense against reprisals from the Hapsburg forces; the revolution reached its apex in April of 1849, when Kossuth issued the Hungarian Declaration of Independence. However, while Kossuth was a superb ideological leader, he had no military experience and struggled with maintaining unity among his generals, leading to disorganized campaigns against the Hapsburg troops. Despite several impressive battle victories, the Magyar army was eventually trounced during the summer of 1849, when the Austrian Empire’s Russian allies added unconquerable might to the counterinsurgency; Petőfi himself was among the soldiers vanquished in the final weeks of the freedom fight.
Over the years that followed, great hardships were imposed on the Hungarian people in response to the revolution; Budapest’s Citadel atop Gellért Hill was built during this time by the Hapsburg forces specifically to intimidate the Magyars from attempting another armed uprising. However, Kossuth and his followers accomplished many important achievements that continue to resonate through history – Hungary’s present-day Parliament is rooted in the revolutionary government, and under Kossuth’s leadership Hungary passed Europe’s first law establishing minority rights in 1849; what’s more, the uprising paved the way toward establishing the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, granting this country partial independence from the Austrian Empire.
Nowadays, as Hungary finally enjoys the independence that so many Magyars fought for in vain, March 15th is honored with numerous ceremonies nationwide, but naturally the grandest events take place in the capital city where the noble revolution began. At 9am a public flag-raising ceremony occurs before the Parliament House in the square that now bears Kossuth’s name, before a festive parade winds through the streets of Budapest in homage of the procession by Petőfi and his fellow rebels. Reaching the National Museum at 10:30am, a lively celebration fills the front staircase as a performer reenacts Petőfi’s dramatic recital. Other celebrations include daylong family programs around the Buda Castle, while Gozsdu Udvar hosts live performances of Hungarian folk music and dancing between 2pm and 4pm.
And on every March 15th, modern-day Magyars across the country don red, white, and green cockades over their hearts, just like the ribbons worn by Petőfi and his brothers in arms – all of them slaves no longer.