Impossible Choices – The Assassination of Count Istvan Tisza

One of the stranger occurrences or shall we say non-occurrences during the highly traumatic first phase of the 20th century (1900 – 1956) in Hungary was – with one notable exception – the lack of assassinations or assassination attempts against the leadership. Whether it was an empire, republic or people’s republic (take your pick), Hungary was beset by the forces of political reaction and counter reaction on numerous occasions. The country went from Red to White Terror literally overnight during the summer of 1919. In late 1944 – early 1945, it swung from fascism to communism in a matter of months. It suffered through two World Wars, the second one of which destroyed much of Budapest as well as 60% of the national economy. The capital was occupied multiple times by three distinctly different foreign armies (Romanian Army in 1919, German Army in 1944, Soviet Army in 1945 and again in 1956) in a period of less than forty years. For twenty-five years the republic was led by a regency replacing an abolished monarchy. This seemingly endless succession of upheavels makes it all the more remarkable that only one Hungarian leader lost their life to an assassination during this time. This man, Istvan Tisza, was the dominant Hungarian politician of the era, prior to and during the First World War. His role also made him a marked man, not once, not twice, but four times. The final blow fell just as the war was drawing to a close.

Count Istvan Tisza

Count Istvan Tisza – giant of Hungarian politics in the years leading up to and during World War I (Artist: Gyula Benczur)

Exiles, Executions and Suicides
Just because Tisza was a marked man, does not mean all the other leaders during this time were safe. After all, the four most controversial men to lead Hungary during the 20th century all ended up as exiles. Mihaly Karolyi lived out the latter part of his life in France. Bela Kun fled to the Soviet Union, where he was unable to escape the vicissitudes of Stalin’s Great Terror in the 1930’s.  He got a bullet in the back of his skull as deadly repayment for his dedication and zeal to the communist cause. Miklos Horthy was kidnapped by the Nazi’s for attempting to negotiate a Hungarian surrender with the Allies. He then ended up in the hands of the Americans, who refused to hand him over to the Soviets. Horthy spent his final years in Estoril, Portugal of all places, his expenses and care financed by Jewish friends who were grateful that he had helped save at least some of the Jews (this is ironic to say the least). Matyas Rakosi, a horrible man who even looked the part, was removed by the Soviets due to the effect his harsh dictatorship had on fomenting the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. He sat out the rest of the Cold War in the Soviet Union, cooling his heels until his death in 1971.

Sadly a couple of men who have been looked kindly upon by some historians, Pal Teleki and Imre Nagy died tragically. In Teleki’s case he shot himself in protest at the government’s decision to allow German troops to use Hungary as a transit corridor for the invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941. As for Nagy, he was executed ostensibly for treason, this happened at the hands of his former comrades. Some might say these men were also committing treason, this time against Nagy and the will of the Hungarian people. Teleki and Nagy may have stood on principle, but were felled by tyranny.

Tyranny did not always win. Take the case of the fascist Ferenc Szalasi, who led the Nazified Arrow Cross movement. His short lived policies took the lives of thousands of Jews. He did not escape fate though. Following the war he was brought back to Hungary, convicted for war crimes and hanged. He was just another of the many different leaders of Hungary that were removed from power in a variety of manners. The tally for this first phase of the 20th century includes a suicide, three executions, multiple exiles and what we now turn to, an assassination.

One Attempt After Another
And what of the assassination of Tisza? As is so often the case in Hungarian history, the assassination does not follow a simple path, the story is clouded with complexities. To begin with, Tisza survived no less than three attempts on his life. The first actually occurred before the war and happened in parliament no less. Tisza had a long history of keeping the socialists and national minorities in check. Politicians who represented these interests were often given to loud protests in parliament against Tisza and his colleagues. Tisza’s response was to have the police remove the obstructionists from parliament.

One such instance led to the first assassination attempt against him. On June 4, 1912, the opposition turned furious over Tisza’s support for an Army Bill. The bill in question would increase Hungarian influence in the army, while at the same time increasing the number of men drafted for service. In other words, the workers and national minorities were to provide the soldiery, while the upper crust of Hungarian society provided the leadership. The socialists disrupted parliament on this day with a variety of noisemaking devices. Tisza called in the police who removed the offenders. Soon after, the Army Bill was passed.

When parliament was convened just three days later, the opposition attempted to cause another disturbance in parliament. Tisza called the police once again to usher them away. One legislator, Gyula Kovacs, managed to make his way into the upper gallery of the chamber. Suddenly he shouted, “There is still a member of the opposition in this house” and fired three shots at Tisza. Kovacs then turned the gun on himself, shooting himself in the head. Astonishingly, his attempts against both Tisza and himself were unsuccessful. Forebodingly, the wounded and bleeding Kovacs is said to have muttered, “this is not the last shots that will be fired here.” A surreal scene followed with the wounded Kovacs removed and Tisza continuing the parliamentary proceedings. The Army Bill was passed. Later Tisza was insulted by his political foe Mihaly Karolyi for passing this bill. This challenge to Tisza’s honor deserved a response. The two fought a dual. In those days, the Hungarian nobility dueled not with pistol, but with fencing sabers. Fortunately, for Karolyi, the duel was stopped after Tisza inflicted the first slash on him.

Just a little over two years later, the heir to the Habsburg throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by a Bosnian Serb nationalist in Sarajevo. This was the spark that would ignite the initial catastrophe of the 20th century, World War I. The Austrian leadership wanted war from the very beginning. The Hungarians were in a much trickier position. War threatened Hungary’s position as a veritable equal in the Dual Monarchy. Tisza helped forestall the initial impulse of the Austrians to declare war. He insisted that the leadership of the Serbian state be given an opportunity to answer the charges for their role in the assassination. The terms given to the Serbians were so stringent though, that there was no way they could meet all the requirements and still maintain a modicum of national self-respect. Nonetheless, the Serbians did meet most of these. Unfortunately, for Tisza and Hungary no amount of Serbian contrition was going to stop the Austrian leadership from going to war, especially when support for the Austrians was assured by Germany.

The best that Tisza could negotiate for Hungary was an agreement that when Serbia was defeated, it would not be annexed into the empire. If it had been, the tenuous power that the Hungarians enjoyed in the Dual Monarchy would have been upset by an increase in the Slav population. Such a Slav presence would have to be accommodated at the expense of Hungary. In retrospect, the Hungarian role in the Dual Monarchy was a classic no win situation. Salvaging it left Tisza and his nation with impossible choices. If Serbia had been defeated and the war won, the Hungarians would probably have lost out to Slav incorporation within the empire and if the war was lost, everything would crumble. Why did Tisza not resign in protest? Because he would have been immediately replaced with another Hungarian leader who supported Austrian policy.  In addition, a failure to support the Austrians would have displayed a near fatal fissure in the Dual Monarchy. Thus, Tisza supported the war and remained Prime Minister until 1917.

His life, like the Dual Monarchy was imperiled by the war. More assassination attempts were forthcoming. One soldier took a shot at Tisza while he was returning from a visit to the front. Another attempt occurred on October 16 when a member of an anti-military group shot at Tisza as he was leaving parliament. This was the same day that Tisza gave a famous speech in Parliament where he admitted “We have lost the war.” This was the final blow not only for Hungary, but also Tisza. All of his life’s work to keep Hungary’s privileged position in the Dual Monarchy was now lost.  Even after his ouster as the nation’s leader, Tisza had remained one of the preeminent politicians in Hungary. What was to become of the country, what was to become of Tisza?

Istvan Tisza with his wife

Istvan Tisza with his wife

The Final Act
October 31, 1918 was a bright, sunny day in Budapest. The Hungarians do not celebrate Halloween, not that anyone at the time would have wanted to. The country was in chaos, hundreds of thousands of men had died on the eastern and southern fronts in horribly mismanaged campaigns. The national minorities were in revolt. New nations were being created and old ones resized. This would eventually lead to Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and an enlarged Romania.  Even in Hungary, radical Socialism was threatening to turn into Bolshevism. Surviving soldiers were arriving back in the capital. They were looking for scapegoats. There was none better than Tisza.

Tisza knew his life was in peril. He carried a pistol at all times. He was advised to leave the country, but said, “I wish to die upright, the way I have lived.” On this day, he was at his villa, the Roheim palace, on the edge of the Varosliget, Budapest’s city park. He was visiting with his wife and niece, the Countess Almassy, in the early evening when three armed soldiers gained entry to the villa. It is still unclear to this day, the details of what exactly transpired. Newspaper reports state that the soldiers confronted Tisza in a hallway. He had his revolver in hand. One of the soldiers asked him to lay it down. He would not. The ladies were asked to leave, but they refused. One soldier addressed Tisza with the accusation that “it is your fault that millions have perished. You brought about this war.” Tisza denied this. The soldiers again asked the ladies to leave, again they refused. The three soldiers lowered their rifles and pointed them at Tisza. A volley of bullets suddenly spewed forth. Tisza was mortally wounded. He lay dying at the feet of his wife and niece. His last words were reportedly, “I am dying. It has to be.”

As mentioned above the Hungarians do not celebrate Halloween, but first day of November is traditionally known as the day of the dead. This is when the dead are remembered, flowers placed on graves and cemeteries packed with those paying their respects. On November 1,1919, Count Istvan Tisza the giant of Hungarian politics was buried earlier than usual. As Miklos Banffy soberly relates in his memoirs, “Tisza’s funeral was to be at four o’clock on the following day. At half past three I set off but was met by a friend coming away. He told me the funeral was over and that it had been held before the time announced as it had been feared the mob might have tried to prevent the last respects from being paid because there were those who had threatened to desecrate the corpse of a man who had been so hated.” Finding peace seemed as elusive in death for Tisza as it was in the last years of his life.

This ended the first and only assassination of a leading Hungarian politician during the tumultuous first phase of the twentieth century. The murder of Count Istvan Tisza can be seen as the final casualty of Hungary’s First World War. He represented the establishment, the old guard, a way of life that was quickly becoming anachronistic. Like the hundreds of thousands of men before him, he died in the trenches. Not the military ones, but instead the political trenches. Yet in many ways he also represents the first casualty in a new war, the war between radical socialism and reactionary conservatism. This was the war that would change Hungary forever and so violently influence the next forty years of its existence.

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