Tucked into a valley bordered on both its northern and southern sides by the Zemplén Mountains, the village of Monok can best be described as picturesque. Vineyards spread from the outskirts of the town up onto the hillsides. Colorful houses in a variety of shapes, sizes and architectural styles are scattered throughout this 2,000 strong community. Besides the allure of its natural setting, Monok seems much the same as so many other cute and quaint Hungarian villages of similar size. Yet there is one big difference, Monok has had an outsized influence on the cause of freedom in Central and Eastern Europe. Two major history makers called Monok home during their childhood. The improbability of a small, provincial village producing a couple of famous historical personages that were part and parcel of revolutionary change, makes this coincidence more than an intriguing bit of trivia. It is also a fascinating fact of modern history.
From Revolution to Self-Promotion – A Kossuth Complex
The first of these was none other than Lajos Kossuth. For those who know little about Hungarian history, the name of Kossuth may be the only one that is even remotely familiar. His name is synonymous with the revolutionary year of 1848. This is rather odd since Hungary usually gets short shrift in European History books. Kossuth bucks this trend. He was the central figure of the 1848 Hungarian revolution against Habsburg rule. He became leader of the republic which his revolutionary rhetoric helped create. Alas, it was short lived and so was Kossuth’s leadership role. In 1849 he fled into exile, never able to return to his homeland. His name lived on though, as he toured the world. Kossuth spread a message of the Hungarian people yearning for freedom and democracy. He did this so well and for so long that he became identified with that revolutionary spirit.
Much of Kossuth’s fame had less to do with his ideals than it did with a mastery of self-promotion. At times it becomes difficult to separate the cause from the man. Kossuth secured his fame in the western world, but in Hungary it went to a whole other level. He became deified to the point that his presence can still be felt almost anywhere in the nation. In almost every large town and city in Hungary there is a Kossuth statue of the great man standing prominently, eyes raised and body language imploring his countrymen onward toward the bright uplands of freedom. In a majority of these places, a Kossuth square marks the very center of town.
Something In The Soil – Seeds of Greatness
As one might imagine, in his birthplace of Monok, Kossuth acts as the focal point. The center of the village, houses a Memorial Museum. Kossuth was the oldest of four children born to lower nobility. His father, ethnically Hungarian, was a lawyer with a small estate. His mother happened to be of German descent. She raised her children as strict Lutherans. It was in this environment that Kossuth’s character was formed. Protestants showed greater opposition to Habsburg rule. They had suffered under imperial authority not just because they were Hungarians, but also as non-Catholics during the counter-reformation. Conversely, the Catholics of Hungary shared ties of religion with the crown. Kossuth exhibited disdain for the Habsburgs throughout his life and opposed them up until his death at the age of ninety-one. The roots of this opposition were deep and unyielding, just like the Lutheran faith of Kossuth’s mother. These principles were ingrained into Lajos Kossuth during his youth in Monok.
Lesser known, but of no less importance in the history of modern Hungary is Miklos Nemeth who coincidentally was also born in Monok. Nemeth has a unique place in the history of not only Hungary, but in the Europe that was once east of the Iron Curtain. He was both Hungary’s last communist prime minister and the re-born republic’s first prime minster. In the late 1980’s, Nemeth made the momentous decision to allow East Germans to pass through Hungary into Austria unhindered. Masses of Germans made their way along this route to freedom ending in West Germany. The iron curtain was torn asunder. It was not long thereafter that the Berlin Wall came down. Nemeth helped start the greatest transformation of Europe that would occur in the last half of the 20th century.
Of Fame & Failure – Of Success & Oblivion
Unlike the idolized Kossuth, hardly anyone remembers or celebrates Nemeth. Ironically Nemeth was successful and Kossuth was not. Nemeth was so successful that hardly anyone noticed and he was quickly forgotten. There is no museum or monument to Nemeth in Monok, but the decision he made in 1989 brought about changes in Europe that have brought freedom for millions. It can make a person wonder what would have happened to Kossuth if he had been successful. Most likely, he would not have been nearly as famous.
It is not often that the sheer randomness of history produces two people born in the same, small village that then become intimately connected with major historical events. Monok offers the opportunity to learn about Kossuth and Nemeth on a more intimate scale. The village also offers a chance to contemplate why a failed revolutionary has been remembered much more than a successful statesman. It is all quite improbable, but no more so than the village of Monok giving rise to two world historical figures.