March 15: celebrating freedom

It’s a bank holiday in Hungary so we’re off for the weekend but what is this celebration actually about?

Spring of 1848 held a wave of changes for Europe. People in general expected more freedom, received more education and fought against oppression. In Paris, Louis-Philippe abdicated and this inspired uprisings all over the continent.

At the time, the kingdom of Hungary was part of the Habsburg empire, a fact that did not sit well with many people.

In Budapest, a group of young hopefuls decided it was time to act. It was enough of the injustices of the Habsburg power of Austria, they had a vision of a modern country with free press, equality of nobles and peasants, elected representatives governing from Hungary.

These were not new demands but initiatives that others, with the leadership of Lajos Kossuth and Istvan Szechenyi, have been fighting for since before some of these young men were born. But all these were stopped either by the conservative Parliament or the officials in Austria.

But then Vienna also faced its own people’s revolution on March 13 and Budapest followed the example. It wasn’t enough any more that the Parliament suddenly gave in to the demands from fear – they needed actions, and act they did.

With the reform ideas collected as a “demand in 12 points” earlier for the Parliament, it was printed without an official approval (unheard of at the time of censorship) and distributed among the crowd. Our famous national poet, Sandor Petofi, also read them a flaming National Song, telling them to take action “now or never”. (A literal English translation is here.)

They found a strong following – tens of thousands gathered and took these demands to the officials of the time who had no choice but agree. They also achieved the release of a political prisoner, the peasant writer, Mihaly Tancsics.

My favourite part is that to celebrate the revolution, the National Theatre joined in, showing a Hungarian play instead of the official programme. Literature and culture back then was such an integral part of life that it held a big significance.

The strength and the united front shown on March 15, won success on the legal front as well: both King Ferdinand and the Parliament accepted the demands and followed through with a series of laws that created the basis of a modern Hungary.

While this did not last on this occasion (the revolution turned into a war that Hungary lost to Austria), it was a very important step to regain Hungarian independence.

National Song

(Written by Sandor Petofi, translated by Alan Dixon)

Arise Magyar, your country calls!
Now or never, our time compels!
Shall we be slaves?Shall we be free?
These are the questions.Answer me!-
By God, our God, Hungarians,
We shall vow,
Shall vow that we must be enslaved
No more now!

Till now we have been abject slaves,
Shaming our forebears in their graves;
Those who so freely lived and died
Can find no rest in sullied ground.
By God, our God, Hungarians,
We shall vow,
Shall vow that we must be enslaved
No more now!

A man quite unprepared to die
Is merest riff-raff in my eye
Thinking ragged life is dearer
Even than this country ‘s honour.
By God, our God, Hungarians,
We shall vow,
Shall vow that we must be enslaved
No more now!

The sword is brighter than the chain,
And on the arm a nobler gain,
Yet you would think chains were preferred!
Come to our aid, ancestral sword!
By God, our God, Hungarians,
We shall vow,
Shall vow that we must be enslaved
No more now!

Hungarians-our nation’s name
Shall glorify its ancient fame;
Then we shall wash away all trace
Of centuries of our disgrace!
By God, our God, Hungarians,
We shall vow,
Shall vow that we must be enslaved
No more now!

Near where in graves we lie at ease
Our grandchildren will bend their knees,
Pronouncing our saintly names
They’ll pray and bless us countless times.
By God, our God, Hungarians,
We shall vow,
Shall vow that we must be enslaved
No more now!

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My soul breathes music and exhales words.

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