Much as with theological modes of thought, secular religion presumes the need for a “beginning.” Of course, the beginning is not historical reality in the literal sense, but rather an image which may have a foundation in actual events, and the legitimacy or function of which is to provide a point in time for the moment of birth and endow history with symbolic power. The designated day does not suffice in itself, it has to be validated by the full historical process. Therefore it has potential spiritual power which singles it out for commemoration. In the case of the nation-religion forming in Hungary during the first half of the nineteenth century, March 15 was to become this day.[1]

Celebration without Holiday

On March 15, 1848, a bloodless revolution took place in Pest under the leadership of radical young intellectuals, opening the way, politically, to the realization of the ideals of the Age of Reform, the realization of the principles of a civil society in Hungary. From the 1830s the liberal nobility gradually elaborated, in the diet and in front of the public, its program for dismantling the feudal system, procuring equal political rights and attaining complete sovereignty for Hungary; its political force, however, remained insufficient for the realization of such a program. It needed the chain of revolutions in Europe and the Hungarian March 15th for a breakthrough in order to bring about parliamentary political development enacted in law on April 11. As we know, the achievements of 1848 were at first accepted by the Habsburgs, who then tried to repress them by inciting civil war and by military intervention and, when these instruments proved insufficient, appealed for help to the greatest military force in continental Europe, the bulwark of European conservatism, the Russian army. The outcome was not in doubt. The main Hungarian forces surrendered in August 1849, the Hungarian revolution was defeated.

Thus March 15 appeared in public consciousness as the combined symbol of two series of events. On the one hand, it was the radical outcome of the process of the Age of Reform and, on the other hand, a heroic struggle, climaxing in a declaration of national independence, which the Hungarians fought for their own constitutional development and for social and political rights. The concepts of “Hungarian” and of “freedom” appeared in complete tandem – two concepts which mobilized the emotions of a people. It was the values of freedom which brought about the new concept of nation based on equal rights, whereas the new nation contributed to the realization of the values of freedom.

The contemporaries were perfectly aware of the significance of 1848–49, to the extent that the consecration of the series of events and of some of the participants was already underway. The Hungarian Revolution and the War of Independence was the period of the formation of mass national consciousness, and became an integral part of national mythology, thus of symbolic politics. The minister of finance in the cabinet of 1848, the governor of the Hungarian state in 1849, became Father Kossuth of the Hungarians.  Other events and symbols of 1848–49 or of March 15 were glorified with lightning speed. In the perception of the radical youth the example of the French Revolution revealed itself as a model, primarily as a result of the books they read. It was no accident that the tricolor, red-white-green (in the shape of a triangle) was selected as the national flag (much later, in 1956, the National Guard selected the red-white-green armband). The creation of these symbols was designed to communicate personal commitment, to the country and to the world.

Nevertheless, the contemporaries did not think of March 15 as a celebration. Indeed, they could not have, for they lived the event, albeit they spoke as they should have spoken and acted out some rituals, since they were aware of the significance of the event. The youth of March 15 displayed pathos, for instance when they took possession of the printing shop to print out Petőfi’s “National Song” and their twelve-point demands, even though the printers offered no resistance at all.[2] They were fully aware: this was the moment of birth of freedom of the press. They also gave the proper circumstances to the release of one of two political prisoners, the liberation of Mihály Táncsics. They knew it was not just a matter of releasing a particular person, but rather of the principle that no one should be persecuted for their political views. If we are evoking events which often appeared staged – partly unconscious, partly self-constructed dramaturgy – then we must know that these acts could not have been carried out without emotional identification. Even if we must assume that later on there was rational, deliberate calculation involved in the political rhetoric, we must never forget that the beginnings preserve their aura of “purity.” What more, it became crucial, later on, that the mythology of “virginity,” of “virgin birth” be substantiated and reinforced, for then history does not remain merely politics, but becomes morals and esthetics as well.

There was pathos in many a statement of Kossuth as well, which cannot be explained away merely by a talent for rhetoric or some latter-day romanticism. When, in July 1848, the members of the national assembly, stood up from their seats and unanimously granted the funds and the large number of recruits requested, by voice vote, then Kossuth expressed his hope that, if there could be as much enthusiasm in the execution as in the offer, then not even “the gates of hell” could topple the Hungarians. While the biblical image makes little sense (gates do not topple anything), it is overshadowed by the time and the venue, the weight of invoking the Old Testament.[3]

We could continue to cite examples of the ritual, but without adding much to the argument. The evolution of the liberal opposition during the Age of Reform opened the way to the turn of March 15, voiced in radical terms, and the events of 1848–49 created the harmony of constitutional freedom and national interests, in emotional terms. The participants created something which they felt and knew to be uplifting. They created the opportunity for a national holiday of freedom, the day of the birth of the nation. It was up to later generations to decide what to do with this opportunity: turn it into a holiday and, if so, what kind?


The Celebration Chosen


The events of 1848–49 created the opportunity for more than one celebration. Yet, potentially, there was only one other day that might have competed with March 15, namely the day of the proclamation of the Declaration of Independence, accepted on April 11 and promulgated on April 16, 1849.[4] Had the Hungarian state remained in existence, then this would have been the date from which it could have derived its origins, the day worthy of celebration. Those who issued the proclamation, first of all Kossuth, were aware of this opportunity, for the proclamation was accepted under rather theatrical settings, and the document itself was nicely illuminated.

Nevertheless, this rival of March 15 had serious limitations. First of all, since it was an act planned by the political leadership, it lacked spontaneity – normally an attractive attribute of history in the making. More importantly, no matter how united the voice of the delegates, diminished in numbers, marching to the Calvinist Main Church of Debrecen, the declaration did not enjoy unanimous support. Moreover, because of the lack of political consensus the proclamation said nothing about the future form of government in Hungary (referred to only later on by the Prime Minister Bertalan Szemere, when he identified the tendency of the new regime as “republican,” among others).[5] Hence the Declaration of Independence did not include the kind of freedom that was expressed unequivocally on March 15. Once again it was up to later generations to decide, for the existence of an independent Hungarian state was conclusively thwarted by the Russian intervention, and parliament was not given the opportunity to chose.

After 1849 the absolutist regime, resorting to drastic means, made any public choice impossible. The state terror, extreme at the beginning, was followed by the consolidated yet still harsh regime run by civil servants and secret police. It was hardly possible to confront Habsburg power openly since the government apparatus was busily repressing the values of both civil rights and nationalism; only very indirectly, perhaps on the occasion of some funeral, was it possible to protest against it. (For instance, at the time of the funeral of the poet Mihály Vörösmarty in 1855.)[6] Toward the end of the fifties, partly as a result of the hesitations of the absolutist regime resulting from international conditions, signs of open protest became more common. The fashion of wearing Hungarian garb,[7] the commemoration of Kazinczy, the performance of the opera of Ferenc Erkel, László Hunyadi, which had overtones of national romanticism became the occasion for minor demonstrations.

Obviously, if the absolutist regime was based on denial of national and civil rights, it had to resort to rather considerable state power; thus public consciousness will seek to manifest itself in precisely the opposite direction, away from the direction taken by government.

Thus we have arrived at the selection of the national holiday, without ceremony. The politically conscious segment of Hungarian public opinion had come to the conclusion that the opportunity for expressing its symbolic will had arrived. The students in Pest, upon learning that the people of Toscana and Modena had prevented the restoration of Habsburg power and made common cause with the province of Piedmont under the leadership of Count Camillo Cavour, decided to officially celebrate March 15. The absolutist regime, shaken in its self-confidence, could not prevent the event, but did stop it from spreading. The soldiery blocked the road leading to the cemetery and opened fire on the demonstrators. Among the wounded was one Géza Forinyák, who died of his wounds.[8] At least one fourth of the population of Pest-Buda turned out for his funeral on April 4. Thus a sort of blood sacrifice sealed the concrete manifestation of the choice of a national holiday. The urge of to express identity, resistance to oppression and martyrdom all became united in a single event.

March 15, 1860, became the explicit expression of the choice of the public. The context of absolutism made it clear that the choice had to fully satisfy nationalism and the values of freedom, as had happened on March 15, 1848. It was also obvious that this could only happen in the form of the common will of society, for the state at that time was the enemy, as it had been in 1848. Therefore that celebration had to assume the aspect of challenging the establishment which, in my opinion, contributed a great deal to the choice of March 15, rather than of April 14 which was state-centered and initiated from above.

The bloody outcome of the public commemoration ended up by enhancing the force of the fledgling celebration, its social context and its character as an act of opposition, the close connection between national and civil rights.


The Coopted Holiday


Of course, the neo-absolutist regime did not take cognizance of the choice of dates for the celebration. Nor did the Compromise of 1867 alter the situation much. The Hungarian government under the Dual Monarchy did not assume responsibility for a celebration to which, in any case, it could not give its blessing, for Francis Joseph I would never have agreed. Full-fledged constitutionality, the full manifestation of national interests – everything that was manifested on March 15, 1848 – could only show itself now as a compromise. A good many of the measures instituted by the ruler, indeed, were already enacted in law; what could the state, handicapped in joint affairs, do to bring to fruition the ideals of 1848 which had relegated the ruler to a purely formal role?

Nevertheless, after 1867, in spite of the fact that the state assumed no responsibility for the holiday, March 15 took on a new life; the cult of 1848, broadly defined, took off. The liberalism that characterized Hungary under the Monarchy made it possible for society to formulate its own cult, ritual or celebration, even without government support. In the period following the Compromise the opposition could rely on the “spirit of 1848,”[9] and the national mythology tied to that revolution could validate itself.

The cult of 1848 prompted mythologizing, a discourse, and refinement. An example of this mythologizing can be found in the “passive opposition,” a commonplace assumption, although the fact has never been substantiated. According to this mythology, in the period from the defeat of the revolution all the way to 1867 the Hungarians hardly played any role in the administration, but insisted on displaying their loyalty to the revolution. The historical evidence, however, does not support this interpretation,[10] but rather the opposite.[11] Nevertheless, what is of interest here are not the facts but the narrative. This narrative prevailed and 1848–49 became a cornerstone of Hungarian politics. If the national political identity is 1848 itself, then one must speak 1848 in political language, it becomes the measure of all things. Thus a relatively wide space opened up, enabling people to discuss public affairs in 1848 language; in fact, this manner of speech became the predominant one. The independentist opposition of the period after 1867 derived its strength not from the opportunity to take over the government, which did not exist, but rather its discourse, which became dominant. This phenomenon was described in common language and the literature of the period as “constitutional opposition,”[12] whereas the others, as well as the official history, described it as “unproductive.” In other words, they failed to understand that the constitutional opposition was aimed not at assuming political power, but rather at the possession of the power of virtual language, in which it was successful. To become successful it was necessary to make 1848 sacred, to smooth the critical surface almost completely, and to turn it into some kind of national esthetics: something beautiful, heroic, noble – hence Hungarian.[13]

The various military, civil and workers’ associations; all non-public schools that is, primarily Protestant schools; the local governments where the opposition had achieved majority; the publishing ventures which found an inexhaustible market for publications about 1848; and the press – created the environment which enabled the celebration of March 15. Whether the funds came from private donors or from the budget of local government, a series of Kossuth statues were erected after 1894, making it possible to hold the celebrations around these monuments. A bronze statue of Petőfi, by Miklós Izsó and Adolf Huszár, was erected in 1882 in downtown Pest, on the banks of the Danube; it became an obvious venue for the celebrations.[14] Hungarian society, true to its choice in 1860, cultivated the memory of March 15 and was willing to make financial sacrifices for the purpose.

The state, however, opted to remain aloof; the establishment was aware of the spreading process, but did not react. This symbiosis lasted until 1897. In that year Ferenc Kossuth, the son of Lajos Kossuth who had returned to Hungary upon the death of his father, introduced a proposal as a member of the opposition in parliament: let March 15 become a national holiday. The proposal was timely, for 1898, the fiftieth anniversary of the event, was approaching.[15]

Prime Minister Dezső Bánffy took a stand in favor of celebrating the events of 1848; but, oblivious to the choice of the people, chose the day which would meet the requirements of legality and constitutionality, but had not been celebrated until that time. His proposal singled out April 11, the day the laws of 1848 were enacted. (His stand was probably influenced by the fact that on April 11, 1848, when the laws were proclaimed in Pozsony [Pressburg], Francis Joseph was present as archduke and heir to the throne; more recently, as king, he had encouraged Bánffy, at the time of his appointment, to nip the cult of Kossuth in the bud.)

In vain did the parliamentary representatives argue that the nation had already chosen. In vain did the members of the party in power specify that April 11 could only be an official holiday, rather than the real thing. Act V of 1898 was passed, proclaiming April 11 a national holiday.

The parliamentary majority felt, although not unanimously, that they had satisfied the yearnings of the people. They gave the nation the opportunity to celebrate the memory of 1848, while avoiding offense to the ruler. Let’s celebrate 1848 but, by involving the state, the establishment figured on stealing away March 15. Of course, they were mistaken. The artificial construct only served to reinforce the social force of the officially nonexistent holiday, of the opposition, its symbols of nationalism and freedom, its construction from below.[16] Thus, March 15 became a holiday with strong, deep roots in society; neither king nor government could divert the spontaneous will.


The Nationalized Holiday


It seemed for a moment that, with the dissolution of the Monarchy and the triumph of the democratic revolution in Hungary, the national holiday had found its place. The democratic republic, itself the product of the erstwhile opposition ideology, turned to March 15 as a matter of course, since its program was the extension of civil rights, independence, democracy and social change. It demonstrated all this on March 15, 1919.[17]

The short-lived experiment in democracy outlived the celebration by only six days. The 133 days aloted to the Hungarian Soviet Republic that followed did not give the new internationalist regime a chance to confront the issue of national liberty.

The Horthy regime which became entrenched was in a rather ambiguous situation. On the one hand, since it considered itself a counterrevolutionary regime, it distanced itself sharply from all revolutionary manifestations, including the democratic one of 1918 and the red dictatorship of 1919. Thus the revolutionary aspect of the Ides of March and the continuity advertised by 1918 were irritants, prompting rejection. Moreover, because of its right-wing, conservative, prestige-oriented bent, it regarded the liberal and democratic aspects of 1848 with outspoken dislike and was inclined to attribute the “degeneration of Hungary” to freedom, described as “excessive.” All this prompted a neglect of March 15. On the other hand, there were arguments for attempting to incorporate the 1848 ideology and its principal symbols into its own ideological structure.

It was precisely because of the lost war, and the attempt to revise the peace treaty so tragic for Hungary, that the regime so badly needed any element with a national content, as its source of ideological strength. Even if the principles of 1848 were on the whole unacceptable to the regime, it did offer this source of strength, with sweeping social support. At the same time, still as a result of the lost war, all those factors which had rendered the national use of the ideology of 1848 difficult had now been deconstructed. Hungary had become an independent country and, while it did remain a kingdom, international politics had forced her to renounce the Habsburg dynasty. Even a sense of political realism argued on the side of not ignoring March 15. For it was obvious that the day would serve the left-wing and democratic forces, now in opposition, quite well. And the previous period had demonstrated already that March 15 exists, even if it is denied, ignored or replaced with another day to celebrate.

The decision was not easy to make. Finally a new anniversary, the eightieth, helped the regime make up its mind. After many years of hesitation, Minister of Religion and Education Kunó Klebelsberg resolved the dilemma by nationalizing March 15, along with those elements of the ideology of 1848 that were useful for the regime.

In November 1927 the Upper House accepted the law proposed by Klelbelsberg (Act XXXI of 1927), declaring March 15 a national holiday.[18] (Naturally, Act V of 1898, declaring April 11 as the national holiday, became moot.) They also passed a law regarding the eternal merits and memory of Lajos Kossuth (Act XXXII of 1927).

Thus it took the political leaders of the Horthy regime about seven years to digest the dilemma called March 15. All they had to do now was to adjust the decision to their own ideology. Consequently, apart from the steps of the National Museum which were the site of the most prominent episode of the day, the memorial tablets were increasingly located in places which reminded the public not so much of national freedom, but rather of irredentism and military activity. For instance a dedication took place on Heroes’ Square, where the Memorial Stone of the National Heroes, with the inscription “for the thousand-year-old boundary lines” was installed. It was the start of the expropriation of the holiday by the authorities. But the more brazen the state and nation-centered interpretation by the Horthy regime became, the more we witness manifestations in a spirit of opposition, in which the dominant roles are played by the values of freedom and the social content. The Social Democrats, labeled “without a country” by the regime, celebrated March 15 by refering to the workers’ associations of yore. The democratic citizenry also created their own forms of celebration, usually around the statue of Petőfi. The most memorable demonstration took place in 1942, when the opposition met at the statue to speak out against fascism, in favor of democracy and true Hungarian national interests.[19]

Certainly the Horthy regime deserves credit for coming to the realization that yes, there was a March 15, even if they did try to appropriate, from “above,” the celebration for their own purposes. The demonstrations by the opposition, however, indicated that the national holiday of freedom cannot be reduced to a nationalist, chauvinist demonstration in fact, the attempt of the establishment to take over did not reduce its feature as a manifestation by the opposition, but rather enhanced it.


The Expropriation of the Holiday


In 1945 when the Soviet troops, representing the Allies, expelled the Germans from Hungary and occupied the country, the new government, based on democratic principles, confirmed March 15 as the holiday of the nation by ministerial decree (no. 1390 of 1945) in one of its very first moves.[20] Although fighting continued in some corner of the country, on March 15, 1945, the anniversary of the revolution was already celebrated across the land. At this time, the political movements representing society at large, observing or pretending to observe the rules of parliamentary democracy, celebrated together. Some of the celebrations organized by the Hungarian Communist party, indicated, however, that another process of expropriation was underway. The CPH presented itself increasingly as the sole heir of the ideology of 1848, stressing those historical figures who could be revamped as proto-communists. Sándor Petőfi, Mihály Táncsics and Lajos Kossuth were chosen with this objective in mind. They were the ones called upon to legitimize Hungarian Communism on the Soviet model, on the basis of the national mythology of 1848. Of course, the aforementioned figures had nothing to do with the fate assigned to them; to find historical justification in lieu of political legitimacy was precisely the purpose of the exercise. By 1948, the one hundredth anniversary of the events, the process of expropriation was almost complete, along with the attainment of exclusive power by the Communist Party.[21] The visual confirmation of this process was the inclusion of the Communist leader, Mátyás Rákosi, among the giant banners depicting Petőfi and Kossuth.

Thus by 1948 the Communist Party, renamed the Hungarian Workers’ Party, showed no shame with regard to March 15. Its arrogance was witnessed by the fact that, unlike in the case of the Horthy regime, there was not the slightest sign of freedom of thought. Two episodes will serve as illustrations. In one instance, a directive from the Council of Ministers, issued five days before the date, deleted March 15 from the ranks of paid holidays. Of course, celebrations took place nevertheless, the schools were out. The other episode derived from the one above, modifying the rituals of the celebration. Alongside the red-white-green appeared the red flag which, although it had ties to the regime, had no ties to 1848. The posters and banners were dominated by the political slogans of the day. Along with Petőfi, Táncsics and Kossuth, there was the triumvirate of Rákosi, Lenin and Stalin. As regards the latter two, it should be remembered that in 1849 it was precisely the intervention of the troops of the Russian tsar that broke the back of the Hungarian revolutionaries, as did the Stalinist occupation under Soviet guise in the 1950s. Thus the presence of Lenin and Stalin at the celebrations of March 15 became a true paradox – one may say the visual climax to the theater of the absurd of Hungarian history. The ideology of the 1950s was also expressed in the Kossuth Monument on Kossuth Square, the work of Zsigmond Kisfaludy Strobl, András Kocsis, and Lajos Ungvári, which replaced the Horvay statue at the same location. The new monument, however, has been sinking over the years, until it was discovered that the pedestal had a hollow inside.[22]

The failure of the attempt at expropriation is shown in 1956, in spite of the fact that the more recent Hungarian revolution did not occur in or around the month of March. The symbolism of 1848 played a prominent role in the process of destalinization and democratization, and in the uprising itself in late October and early November, to the point where 1956 has but one symbol of its own, the flag with a hole in the middle. All its other symbols derived from the ideology of March 15 – the Petőfi Circle, where the revolution started its gestation, the arm band of the National Guardsmen, the Kossuth coat of arms. The events of 1956 proved again that the milder attempt at expropriation by the Horthy regime, as well as the all-out attempt by the Rákosi regime had failed, and March 15 remained what Hungarian history had decreed it should be, a challenge from below by the opposition. Its survival, especially in the 1950s, was helped by the fact that the ideal of national freedom remained a task for the future. A nation under occupation and deprived of its political freedom could not logically do otherwise than to reach back to contents and symbols that had been elaborated in the past.

Of course, among the demands presented in 1956 was the one to turn March 15 once again into a national holiday.[23] The leaders who were helped to power by the Soviet intervention of mid-twentieth century appeared wiser, at first, than their counterparts in the nineteenth. In December 1956 a ministerial decree restored the rank of national holiday to March 15. The wisdom, however, dissipated rather rapidly. In 1957, once again five days before the onset of the holiday, it was abolished as a paid holiday, although school was still out.[24] Obviously, the Kádár regime had no more regard for the ideals of March 15 than the Rákosi regime had. The expropriation continued, although the pictures of the contemporary leaders were no longer present. The red flag flew untouched and unchanged.

The series of tired celebrations were relieved at the beginning of the 1970s. For one thing, the nascent opposition sponsored alternative manifestations, especially in 1971 and 1972, when the police intervened to disperse the crowd of young demonstrators. Then the establishment invented new forms of expropriation, with the objective of balancing the social and political opposition evoked by March 15. The best they could come up with, until the mid-eighties, was termed, “days of revolutionary youth.” The essence of the idea was to bundle together three designated days: March 15, March 21 which was the day of proclamation of the Soviet Republic in 1919, and April 4, the day World War II ended for Hungary in 1945. The dates were close together in the calendar, but there was the attempt to blend the contents together as well. These three events could be embodied in Lajos Kossuth, Béla Kun, the protagonist of 1919, and Marshal Rodion Malinovski, who led the Soviet troops into Hungary. Of course, Kossuth had no more to do with Kun and the Soviet marshal than with Lenin or Stalin.

This form of expropriation was grinding to a halt, for the democratic opposition established another tradition in the 1980s, a march from the statue of Petőfi to that of statue of Józef Bem, the ’48-er general from Poland. The demonstration was tying together the ideals of 1848 with those of 1956 and the changes introduced in the 1980s. It was once again obvious that March 15 was the day of the ideals of freedom expressed by society, at least as much as the day expropriated by a given regime.

The recognition of this was not ex post facto; it was clear from the contemporary photographs. In the seventies and eighties the forces of law and order, usually in uniform, were all over the public places associated with the celebrations. Those who dispatched them knew best the actual social value of the state-run holiday.


The Downgraded Holiday


Change came about in the late eighties. In 1989 the Council of Ministers decided to turn March 15 once again into a paid holiday. The decision, pondered over the fleeting thirty-two years between 1957 and 1989, indicated that the power of the dictatorship was waning, it was ready to concede to reality, namely to the fact that since 1860, March 15 had been considered a national holiday by the Hungarians, whether the state concurred or not.

The late eighties resulted in the unparalleled renaissance of March 15,[25] for the realization of the ideal of national independence, an end to the occupation of the country, the formation of political democracy were within sight. The holiday was marked by mass demonstrations, by speakers who only a year or two earlier had been harassed and beaten by police, by spontaneous slogans demanding change. Although the forces of law and order of the people’s democracy were still around in numbers, the cockade of the national colors was displayed on the blue-grey uniforms, while the red star was shining on the caps. It was part of the excitement: would the dispatched forces act in accordance with the spirit of the national colors or the spirit of the red star?

The mass demonstrations were peaceful, indicating that in Hungary it was possible to move from a less oppressive dictatorship to civil society and democracy without bloodshed. The last March 15 before the free elections already indicated that the political factors were now competing as to who should celebrate the holiday, where and how.

The freely elected multiparty Hungarian parliament confronted the issue of deciding which holiday of the independent republic was the most important one, the most highly valued by the regime. The contenders were March 15, October 23, that is the day the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 broke out, and August 20, the day of Saint Stephen, the first king of Hungary. Although the parties did not vote en bloc, the majority of the members opted for August 20 as the national holiday. Of course, March 15 was retained among the holidays, only in a somewhat diminished capacity. It seems that after the change of regime it was no longer as sorely needed as when it functioned to change the regime.[26]


* * *


Thus the vicissitudes of March 15 – its often absurd history – led it to this stage. After Hungarian society had picked the date for itself, March 15 became the victim of everything that could hurt a celebration: it was persecuted, denied, corrupted, nationalized, downgraded. One might say, the various regimes did everything a state is capable of doing to the public will in general. But the story also tells us that March 15 is an integral, irreplaceable component of Hungarian symbolic politics, a focus of national identity. Its existence must be acknowledged, it cannot be ignored. Its existence as a holiday is no longer subject to debate; what might change is who gives emphasis to what, and when. The birthday of the nation is celebrated always on the same day, but differently.

[1] In 1992 the Műcsarnok [Exhibit Hall] organized an exhibit of photographs pertaining to the history of March 15. For its catalog, I wrote the study “Március15. Nemzeti szabadságünnepünk hányatott története” [The vicissitudes of our national day of independence, March 15], in Márczius 15. Nemzeti szabadságünnepünk kalandos története [March 15. The venturesome history of our national day of independence], ed. Mihály Gera (Budapest: Műcsarnok, 1992). Ilona Stemler and Péter Szigeti were responsible for collecting the extremely interesting photographic materials, and Mihály Gera edited the publication. As far as I know, no study had been published previously on the subject. Even the legal aspects of it have elicited but one item, a newspaper article by László Kikova and Kocsárd Székely, in the April 6, 1988, issue of Magyar Nemzet. My own study, somewhat revised, was later included in my volume, Magyar polgárosodás. Five years later Gyarmati published Március hatalma.

[2] Regarding the ritual of the day, see György Spira, Petőfi napja [Petőfi’s Day] (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó,1975).

[3] György Szabad, one of the most prominent scholars on the subject of Kossuth, wrote about his speech of July 11, 1848: “…the strength of the ailing Kossuth was sufficient for a moving peroration: ‘You stood up and I bow down in front of the nation’s greatness and all I say is: Let there be as much energy in the execution, as I find patriotism in the offer, then even the gates of hell will be no avail against Hungary.’ The great test of validity, announced by the biblical reference, which seems hazy to us nowadays, but was well understood in those days, was coming soon.” See Szabad, Kossuth politikai pályája, p. 136. Nevertheless, Szabad is aware of the major mixture of metaphors in the biblical image. For a more extensite quote of Kossuth’s speech, see n. 15, p. 280. The “gates of hell” is mentioned on pp. 39, and 139.

[4] The declaration of April 14 as national holiday was contained already in Article XV of the Program of the National Republican Party (headed by György Nagy). See Mérei and Pölöskei, eds., Magyarországi pártprogramok.

[5] Regarding the circumstances surrounding the Declaration of Independence and the speech by Szemere, see Mihály Horváth, Magyarország Függetlenségi Harczának története 1848 és 1849-ben [The History of Hungary’s War of Independence in 1848 and 1849] (Geneva: Puky Miklós, 1863), vol. 2, pp. 495–569.

[6] The hundredth anniversary of the birth of Ferenc Kazinczy, the foundation of the Association of Transylvanian Museums, and similar cultural events offered opportunities for such protest demonstrations.

[7] Regarding the fashion of wearing Hungarian garb, see Gellért Váry, “A Bachkorszak Csongrádon” [The Bach era of absolutism in Csongrád], in A föld megőszült [The Earth Got Older], ed. Gyula Tóth (Budapest: Szépirodalmi Könyvkiadó, 1985), vol. 1, pp. 27–28.

[8] Regarding the circumstances of the event, see György Szabad, “Az önkény- uralom kora” [The age of arbitrary rule], in Magyarország története, 1848–1890 [History of Hungary] (Budapest Akadémiai Kiadó, 1979), vol. 1, part 6, pp. 639–694.

[9] Regarding its relations to 1848 and 1867, see Gerő, The Hungarian Parliament, pp. 167–184.

[10] The thesis of “passive resistance” had become practically a commonplace under the Dual Monarchy, requiring no further evidence, and it was adopted, with some refinement, by Hungarian historiography. Gusztáv Beksics, Albert Berzeviczy and later historians have adopted this thesis. István Bibó accepted it as a self-evident fact. More recent research, however, does not substantiate this commonplace. Three researchers have come to similar conclusions: Gábor Benedek “Ciszlajtániai tisztviselők a neoabszolutizmuskori Magyarországon” [Civil servants on the Hungarian side during the age of neo-absolutism], in Aetas, no. 4 (1995); Ágnes Deák, “Nemzeti egyenjogusítás” Kormányzati nemzetiségpolitika Magyarországon 1849–1860 [“Equalization in national rights” – The government’s nationality policies in Hungary] (Budapest: Osiris, 2000); and József Pap, “A passziv ellenállás, a neoabszolutizmus korának mitosza?” [Passive resistance: a myth of the age of neo-absolutism?], Aetas, nos. 2–3 (2003).

[11] See Lajos Hőke, Magyarország újabbkori története [History of Modern Hungary] (Nagybecskerek, 1893), pp. 455–464.

[12] Gusztáv Gratz, Gyula Szekfű, and Péter Hanák have all resorted to the expression.

[13] The overtone of criticism, sounded by Zsigmond Kemény at the beginning of the 1850s, is no longer around. See Kemény, Forradalom után [After the Revolution] (Pest: Hackenast Gusztáv, 1850); Kemény, Még egy szó a forradalom után [Another Word after the Revolution] (Pest: Hackenast Gusztáv, 1851). Instead the tendency to purify 1848 became most massive, as indicated by the bibliography undertaken by Judit Bíró and Marcell Sebők on the initiative of Martha Lampland, is available only in manuscript. The publishing ventures and the market gave preference – by far – to works which perpetuated the legends of 1848 rather than its actual history. The contemporaries were also aware of the self-consciousness and the well-nigh stupid lack of understanding of the circumstances. Four years after the Compromise a series of caricatures and pastiches were published (e.g., in Borszem Jankó, December 6, 1871, p. 1045), which described one of the leaders of the independentist movement as a demagogue and his statements as empty demagoguery. The drawings show the politician, revolving around his own axis, surrounded by a reef of phrases:


I love my country. Because it is my obligation.

I desire the independence of the state.

The wish of my heart, is that this fatherland not become an orphan.

It is important to spend the pennies of the people right.

But what do the people, the idols of my heart, gain in exchange?

They have to pay for the scourge which whips them.

And what does all this lead to

The precious blood of the people and the conclusion: that it is my sacred duty to love my country” (entitled: “The one who revolves around his own axis.”)

[14] The statue, still standing, represents Petőfi in a classical pose, wearing a toga, his hand raised to take an oath.

[15] This story is elaborated by Péter Hanák, “A nemzeti és állampatrióta értékrend frontális ütközete a Monarchiában” [The frontal clash of values of the national patriot and the government patriot, under the Monarchy], in A Kert és a Műhely [The Garden and the Workshop] (Budapest, Gondolat, 1988), pp. 112–129.

[16] Regarding reactionary social feelings see, Mrs. Dezső Kosztolányi, Dezső Kosztolányi (Budapest: Révai, 1938). The father of the poet Kosztolányi, a high school principal in Szabadka [Subotica], declared March 15 a holiday every year, before April 11 was decreed as the official holiday.

[17] People’s Act XXI of 1919 regarding the holiday of Hungarian independence:


P1. The Hungarian People’s Republic, to commemorate the beginning of the first victory of Hungarian freedom, consecrates the 15th day of March and the 31st day of October [anniversary day of the 1918 revolution] as the days to celebrate Hungarian national freedom.

P2. Act V of 1898 is moot.

P3. This act of the people becomes effective on March 15, 1919. This act of the people is executed by the government of the people.

Dated February 27, 1919, in Budapest. The President of the Hungarian People’s Republic, Mihály Károlyi.

Országos Törvénytár [National Law Code], February 28, of the year 1919.

[18] “Regarding the proclamation of March 15 as a national holiday, by Act XXXI of 1927.”


Ill-fated, in the midst of severe trials and tribulations, the Hungarian nation remembers March 15, of the year 1848, with grateful piety. On this day, the sons of the nation, in their burning love of the country professed their faith in the high principles of constitutional freedom and equality of rights, and their sacred enthusiasm penetrated the entire nation; they designated the direction of the progress of the thousand year-old nation to be taken according to the new spirit of the age.

Those epoch-making legislative creations which extended constitutional rights to all the estates of the nation found realization in the spirit of this day. In order to enable the nation to draw faith, strength and hope from the glorious traditions of this day for the advent of a better future,

The legislature, following the consensus of the nation which manifested itself spontaneously, from the beginning

  1. declares the fifteenth day of March a national holiday
  2. this law becomes effective the day of its proclamation whereas Act V of 1898, declaring April 11 as the national holiday, becomes invalid. This law is to be carried out by the Ministry.

Országos Törvénytár [National Law Code], December 28 of the year 1927, number 14.

[19] March 15 found its way into the ritual of the opposition to the Horthy regime as well. The “March Front” initiative of some intellectuals refers to 1848 by its very name. See Imre Kovács, A márciusi  front [The March Front] (New Brunswick: MÖSZ, 1980). The demonstration of 1942 was the organized by the Hungarian Historical Monuments Committee. The ideological content is indicated by Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky, “Március 1848-ban és 1942-ben” [March in 1848 and 1942], and Gyula Szekfű “Az ünnep” [The holiday] in the March 15, 1942, issue of the Magyar Nemzet. The event is placed in its historical context by Gyula Juhász, Uralkodó eszmék Magyarországon, 1939–1944 [Dominant Ideologies in Hungary, 1939–1944] (Budapest: Kossuth, 1983), pp. 83–107.

[20] The declaration makes sense only as a political statement, for the law of 1927 was still in effect.

[21] The memory of the revolution was also enacted into law:


Act XXII of 1948 regarding the commemoration of the Revolution and War of Liberation of 1848–49.

The Hungarian revolution broke out a hundred years ago, on March 15, 1848. The Hungarian nation went into battle to secure its independence and freedom, to shake off the foreign yoke, to free the serfs, to break the shackles of feudalism.

The national assembly of the Hungarian Republic considers itself the heir to the revolutionary and democratic principles and traditions of 1848–49. It solemnly declares that it will preserve loyally the great traditions and spirit of 1848, will fight consistently against all forms of oppression, and will continue to promote the peaceful coexistence of all nations.

In order to express its respect for the principles of the freedom fight of 1848 the National Assembly creates the following law:

  1. The memory of the revolution and freedom fight of 1848–49 is enacted into law as a token of the gratitude and respect of the Hungarian nation.
  2. This law becomes effective the day of its proclamation.

Országos Törvénytár [National Law Code], March 15 of the year 1948, no. 16.


Regarding the ideology and background of this law see my chapter on the cult of Kossuth, and the my book, Az államositott forradalom.

[22] The base of the monument was reinforced in 1980 with an infusion of concrete, to save it from sinking.

[23] Gyarmati, Március hatalma, pp. 144–47.

[24] At the same time, in the days preceding March 15, 1957, over five thousand persons were taken into custody. János Kenedi, Kis állambiztonsági olvasókönyv. Október 23. – március 15. – június 16. a Kádár-korszakban [Little Reader on State Security. October 23, March 15, June 16 in the Kádár Era] (Budapest, Magvető, 1996), vol. 1, p. 22.

[25] The democratic opposition openly demanded that March 15 become a national holiday. In 1988 there was a demonstration involving several thousands, exceeded in 1989. In 1990, the struggles of the political parties in process of formation became involved in the celebration.

[26] More precisely, the issue was which day to choose when Hungary celebratres itself vis-à-vis the outside world, when to invite the diplomatic corps in Hungary. As regards international protocol, this would indicate that a particular state considers that day to be the most important holiday. The law did not establish a hierarchy of holidays.


Act VIII of 1991 regarding the official holidays of the Republic of Hungary. The National Assembly, in order to properly commemorate the establishment of the state, creates the following law:

  1. The official holidays of the Republic of Hungary:
  2. March 15, the day of the beginning of the Revolution and War of Liberation of 1848–49, when the modern Hungarian parliamentary state was born;
  3. August 20, the holiday of Saint Stephen, the founder of state;
  4. October 23, the day of the beginning of the Revolution and Freedom Fight of 1956, and the day of proclamation of the Republic of Hungary in 1989.
  5. Of the above-listed holidays, the National Assembly declares August 20 the official state holiday.
  6. (1)This law enters into effect the day of its proclamation.

(2) At the same time the following acts of parliament become moot:

—directive 1, with force of law, from the year 1950 by which the People’s Republic declares August 20 as a holiday

—directive 10, with force of law, from the year 1950 which declares April 4, the day of the liberation of Hungary, as a national holiday.

—Directive 37 of the year 1950 which declares the anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution as a state holiday.