The Struggle in Hungary

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Author(s) Friedrich Engels
Written 2 February 1849

Source: Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 8, p. 290;
First published: in Neue Rheinische Zeitung No. 212, February 3, 1849.
Collection(s): Neue Rheinische Zeitung

With this article Engels began his series of reports on the Hungarian revolutionary war against the Austrian monarchy. He used army bulletins of the Austrian command published in the official Wiener Zeitung and other Austrian newspapers as his main source. In spite of the tendentious and fragmentary character of the information given in them, which Engels himself later emphasised in his letter to Marx on April 3, 185 1, he managed to give a fairly exact general picture of the military developments. “At the time,” he wrote in this connection to Marx on July 6, 1852, “we presented the course of the Hungarian war in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung with amazing correctness on the basis of Austrian reports and made brilliant, though cautious, forecasts.” Engels also wrote about his reports on the Hungarian war in his letter to H. G. Lincoln, editor of the Daily News on March 30, 1854, offering his services as a war correspondent. In the early 1850s Engels took up a systematic study of military science and the art of war and began to collect additional material on the Hungarian war (Memoirs of Görgey, commander-in-chief of the Hungarian army, biographies of Hungarian generals, the Kossuth Government’s official periodicals etc.) with the intention of writing a special work on the history of the revolutionary wars in Hungary and Italy, but these plans did not materialise.

Engels began his reports on the Hungarian events when the situation in revolutionary Hungary was extremely grave. On December 16 Windischgrätz’s counter-revolutionary army marched to the south, in the direction of Buda and Pest (two neighbouring towns at the time), and captured them early in January 1849. The Hungarian revolutionary Government (National Defence Committee) headed by Kossuth and the parliament (State Assembly) moved to Debreczin. At the same time counter-revolutionary troops advanced from Galicia (General Schlick’s corps), Silesia, the Banat and in other regions. The reactionary German periodicals exaggerated the successes of the Austrian army and foretold a speedy and final defeat of Hungary. Engels, on the other hand, pointed out that Hungary had defence reserves and the possibility to bring about a radical turn in the fortunes of war, which indeed happened soon afterwards.

Cologne, February 2. The war in Hungary is nearing its end. “Parturiunt montes, nascetur ridiculus mus.” ["The mountains are in labour and a ridiculous mouse will be born” — Horace]

Thus spoke the Kölnische Zeitung a few days ago. It had been fooled by Welden into thinking that the Assembly in Debreczin had dissolved both itself and the army, and that Kossuth was about to flee to Grosswardein with the rest of his following.

The mountain in labour this time was none other than the Kölnische Zeitung itself.

The 17th Army Bulletin, to which Welden imputed the above lie, reports two new operations of the imperial troops: firstly, the departure of a corps from Pest via Gyöngyös to Miskolcz, and secondly, Schlick’s plan to operate in two columns against Tokaj, one via Kaschau, the other via Janosfalva and Baranya. Both are concentric movements against the Theiss, behind which the Magyars have taken up positions.

From the border of Transylvania to Szegedin the Theiss describes a semicircle the centre of which is Grosswardein: this semicircle forms the Magyar defence line. On the Upper Theiss it is covered by the fortresses of Sziget and Munkfics; on the Middle Theiss by impassable swamps which begin a few miles from Munkács, accompany the Theiss on both sides to its mouth and render an attack from north and west very difficult. In the south the Körös and its tributaries offer a line of defence which is likewise covered by uninterrupted swamps and moreover by the advanced fortress of Temesvfir. So, defended on three sides by swamps and rivers, the Debreczin Heath stretches away to the Transylvanian hills and offers the Magyars an excellent point for concentrating their armies, all the better since Bem has freed their rear by the conquest of Transylvania.

So long as the Magyars hold their ground on the Drava and in the Banat, Debreczin, the centre of their operations, can only be attacked from the north (Schlick) and west (Windischgrätz), and both the above movements are said to be preludes to this attack.

Miskolcz and Tokaj, the two towns to which the imperial troops are now marching, are barely six miles from each other. Tokaj is one of the most advantageous crossing points over the Theiss; Miskolcz lies close enough to enable the troops sent there, depending on circumstances, to join Schlick’s corps at Tokaj or to cross the Theiss by themselves a little lower down and, if successful to advance on Debreczin.

This plan of the imperial army, which the 17th Bulletin trumpets around the world with such pomp, is, however, not so easy to carry out. From Pest to Miskolcz is more than 30 miles, across desolate heath land, inhabited either by hardly anybody or else by enemies. From Eperies to Tokaj it is also 30 miles, also through decidedly hostile and poor country. The provisioning alone of the two advancing corps would greatly delay their march; the bad roads, which with the present thaw are becoming completely impassable, make it quite impossible for them to reach their destination in less than a fortnight. And once arrived they will find themselves facing the Magyar army, at the crossings of the Theiss, entrenched between swamps, in positions with covered flanks, where the imperial troops cannot deploy their superior strength, where, on the contrary, a few regiments can hold up a whole army. Nay, even were they to succeed in forcing the crossings over the Theiss, the Austrian artillery and heavy cavalry would be utterly lost between the swamps, in marshy ground, in which they will constantly be bogged.

What grandiose successes these two columns have had so far can already be seen from the fact that the 18th Army Bulletin, which we reported yesterday is completely silent about them. Where they are, how far they have advanced, what successes they have had — of that Welden tells us not one syllable, and for good reasons.

But, says Welden,

“according to the news received from Hungary, our troops enjoy brilliant success everywhere”

— and the Kölnische Zeitung believes Herr Welden.

Let us look a little more closely at these “brilliant successes”.

Four “successes” are reported. Of these three are in areas where there is no decisive fighting, but where the Magyars are merely striving to keep the imperial troops busy at points of secondary importance and thus to divide them. Only the fourth “success” has been won on the Theiss, where Hungary’s fate is being decided.

In the north-west, between the Waag and the Gran, in the south-west, between the Drava and the Danube, and in the south, in the Banat, three Hungarian corps are so far keeping a considerable part of the imperial forces busy, thereby preventing Windischgrätz from pushing forward to the Theiss with any considerable numbers. Against these three corps the imperial forces, so they say, have had “brilliant successes”. Voyons! [Let’s see]

First success. In the north-east, where “Slovakia” [1] is now placed, Baron Csorich has beaten General Görgey at Schemnitz and has taken Schemnitz. When one considers that Görgey’s corps is simply a lost outpost which has to stand its ground in the rear of the imperial army as long as possible; and when one considers that Görgey is operating not on Magyar but on purely Slovak ground, one sees that this success is not very “brilliant”.

Moreover, Csorich was to be supported by Götz and Sossay’s columns. But Sossay was urgently called to Neutra “there to assist in the pacification of the part of the country already occupied” (a purely Slav comitat [county]) , and Götz had his hands full “maintaining his position at Mossocz and protecting the Turócz comitat from the insurgents whom Lieutenant-Field Marshal Csorich had beaten and scattered(!!)”.

The at-last-to-be-hoped-for” (hence still a long way off) “capture of Leopoldstadt and the occupation of Neuhäusel ... should suffice to strengthen the good spirit which is beginning (!) to develop everywhere in the Trentschin comitat and to contribute to the restoration of law and order.”

What brilliant successes! The at-last-to-be-hoped-for capture of a not-yet-captured fortress offers the hope that the much-hoped-for good spirit of a long since occupied region will not, one hopes, always remain a pious wish, and the hope that law and order may at least partially approach realisation!

An uncaptured fortress, a beaten army which nevertheless threatens an entire comitat and keeps several army corps in check, a much-hoped-for good spirit here, an only too real bad spirit there, risings threatened everywhere, and all this on Slovak, not Magyar territory — that is the first “brilliant success"!

Secondbrilliant success”. A second doomed outpost of the Magyars is in the south-west, between the Danube and the Drava, under the partisan leader Damjanich. Here the brilliant success consists in Count Nugent having ordered the occupation of Kaposvfir so as to reach the enemy’s flank. What brilliant success there is in that is not yet clear. The occupation of Eszék by imperial troops is, it is true, reported by several papers, but the 18th Bulletin does not yet know of it and does not even expect it.

Thirdbrilliant success”. General Todorovich has captured Werschetz in the Banat and is “energetically pursuing” the Magyars to Moravicza.

From Werschetz to Moravicza is exactly three miles and the position at Moravicza between the Alibunar swamp and the mountains is far more favourable than that at Werschetz.

At any rate it is well known that the Banat is so far from the centre of operations and that the attacks against the Magyars have been so sporadic that even the most brilliant successes of the imperials would here be of no importance whatsoever.

Fourthbrilliant success”. Hitherto we have seen the imperial troops, it is true, operating on not very decisive terrain, but at least we saw them operating with some semblance of success. Now at last we come to a decisive terrain, and here the success consists in a defeat of the imperial troops.

General Ottinger had advanced from Pest as far as the Theiss, to Szolnok. The road was fairly good; from Pest to Szolnok there is a railway, and all that was needed was to follow the rails. The imperial advanced guard had already occupied the bridge at Szolnok. The crossing of the Theiss appeared to be secured for the right wing of the imperial troops. The left wing under Schlick, operating from Tokaj, the centre from Miskolcz, the right wing under Ottinger from Szolnok, were to force the Theiss crossings and march concentrically on Debreczin. But the imperial gentlemen had reckoned without their host. The Magyars crossed the frozen river, drove Ottinger back four miles all the way to Czegléd, and only gave up the pursuit when Ottinger had received reinforcements near Czegléd and taken up a strong position. According to the Bulletin, it is true, the Magyars are supposed to have gone back across the Theiss, but at all events they now control the crossing and Herr Ottinger, having so hastily retreated, will hardly force it so soon.

These are the “brilliant successes” of the imperial troops against the disbanded, demoralised, scattered army of Kossuth’s rebels. A glance at the map shows that the Magyars have lost nothing since they decided to retreat behind the Theiss. As the latest Austrian unofficial reports announce, they are at Miskolcz and await the attacks of Schlick and Windischgrätz. They will not accept battle there either, but will withdraw behind the Theiss. The decisive battle will be fought at the crossings of this river, or, if these are forced, in the Debreczin Heath. And even if the Magyars are routed here, guerilla warfare will begin in the heaths and swamps of Lower Hungary and in the Transylvanian mountains in the same way as it has already begun in the “parts of the country already occupied”, to the great regret of the 18th Bulletin. What such warfare can achieve in a sparsely populated country and on a suitable terrain has been proved by the Carlist bands in Spain, and is now being proved again by Cabrera.[2]

But Kossuth has not come to that yet. Although the Kölnische Zeitung in its childlike naivety had him taken prisoner yesterday, he is still free and has a considerable army at his disposal. For him it is no longer a question of standing his ground for months on end; he only needs to offer resistance for three or four more weeks. In three to four weeks at most the tables will be turned in Paris: either the Restoration wins there for the moment, and then Hungary may fall, too, so that the counter-revolution may be altogether triumphant; or the revolution will win, and then the Austrian gentlemen will march in haste to the Rhine and to Italy, to be chased back to Hungary by the Red Pantaloons. [The French army]

In conclusion, let us note the most brilliant of all the imperial troops’ successes: Herr Welden’s bulletins have at last found a believer who swears by them — and this one is the Kölnische Zeitung.

  1. The reference is to the Slovak corps formed in 1848 by L. Stur and J. Hurbann under the control of Austrian officers. The corps consisted of Slovak and to some extent Czech students. In 1848-49 it took part in the war against revolutionary Hungary. The corps did not enjoy the sympathy of the people of Slovakia
  2. The reference is to the civil war in Spain in 1833-40 which was unleashed by the clerical and feudal circles headed by Don Carlos, the pretender to the throne. The Carlist forces commanded by Zumalacarregni and Cabrera-y-Griño operated in Catalonia and the Basque provinces using guerilla methods of warfare. After the 14-thousand-strong army of the Carlists failed to take Madrid in 1837, the Carlist movement declined and was defeated by 1840. In 1848 Cabrera tried to revive it by organising a revolt of the Carlists in Catalonia but was seriously wounded and fled to France