As an American I had always been taught that the separation of church and state was sacrosanct. It was one of the defining differences between the United States and Europe. This became apparent to me when I first started visiting churches in Hungary. In almost every one of them, the Hungarian flag could be found flying in a prominent place. The relationship was explicit, the church was an integral part of the state and vice versa. Four decades of communist rule may have eroded the religiosity of Hungarians, but the relationship of church intertwined with state had been returned to its historical role in 1989. This relationship was inviolable, but also paradoxical. That was because I found Hungarian churches almost always empty. The few times I witnessed a service, the church would be largely devoid of parishioners. Nonetheless, the Hungarian flag was proudly flying among all the other usual religious trappings.
An Empty Chair – Kossuth Takes A Stand
The most poignant example of the interconnection between church and state I found in Hungary was at Debrecen’s Great Reformed Church. In addition to being a House of God, it has also acted as a House of History. The church is home to one of the more unique and exalted historical artifacts to be found anywhere in the country. Placed up against one of the white washed walls of the interior is a rather simple chair. Its frame is made of polished wood with a burgundy cushion adorned with a circular wreath of flowers covering the seat. The chair looks like the kind of set piece one might expect to find in an exhibition of Biedermeier inspired furnishings, but this is no ordinary chair. It is known as the Kossuth Chair because on April 14, 1849, Lajos Kossuth sat in this chair at the Great Reformed Church on a momentous day in Hungarian history.
The Hungarian government had been forced earlier in the year to flee from Pest due to the Austrian army’s occupation of the city. Now Kossuth was prepared to make a historic pronouncement in Debrecen’s most famous building. The church was packed with a capacity crowd that spilled out its doors and into the immediate surroundings. They were there for an open session of parliament. When Kossuth rose to speak the audience fell silent. He then made a statement that has become known as the Hungarian Declaration of Independence. His pronouncements can best be summed up by the words that due to their behavior in Hungary the “House of Habsburg has forfeited the throne.”
This declaration was met with roars of approval, but the cheers were deceptive. While a motion was approved by parliament, one-third of the lower house was not present and only twenty-eight members of the upper house were there. Many in Hungary either disagreed with Kossuth’s course of action or were ambivalent. On the other hand, Kossuth took a risk that sealed his place in history. It also helped seal the fate of Hungary. Later that same year Hungarian independence collapsed as its military forces were overwhelmed by the Austrians who were by then supplemented by an influx of Tsarist Russian forces. Kossuth fled the country never to return. The chair at the Great Reformed Church became part of his legacy. A chair that has remained empty ever since that time.
The Ghost That Haunts – Invisible Forces
I found Kossuth’s Chair to be one of the more fascinating artifacts I have come across in my travels across Hungary. The chair was left unsecured, up against a wall where anyone could approach it. The fact that it was not in the Hungarian National Museum, even though it was certainly worthy of an exalted spot there, made the chair’s presence that much more powerful. To see an artifact in the same place where it became part of history is a relatively rare experience. Rarer still is the ability to stand within arm’s length of such an artifact without anything or anyone standing between viewer and object. Regardless of one’s opinion of Kossuth, the chair is an excellent stand in for his historical presence. It gives the moment he gave voice to Hungarian independence a certain permanency. Though the chair is empty, Kossuth’s ghost haunts the church. Just as he haunts the history of a valiant yet failed attempt at revolution.
Kossuth’s speech is the most famous of a surprisingly long list of political activities that took place within the church. Political turbulence in Hungary often found its way into the Great Reformed Church and the nearby Reformed College during the first half of the 20th century. In the chaotic aftermath of World War I, Romanian troops occupied Debrecen for eleven months. When they were finally ready to leave, the troops were marshaled in front of the Great Reformed Church and from there marched out of town. A month later, the man who would lead Hungary during the interwar era, Regent Miklos Horthy was greeted upon his arrival in Debrecen with a ceremony in the church.
When the Horthy regime was swept aside during World War II, the German authorities took over much of the nearby Reformed College. That occupation was short lived as the Germans were usurped by the Soviets who proceeded to use both the college and church for their own purposes. In December 1944, the Provisional National Assembly overseen by the Soviets met in the church. Debrecen had once again provided a home for the Hungarian government, but as in 1849, not for long. Time and again, the Great Reformed Church and Reformed College were recalcitrant participants in Hungary’s tumultuous 20th century history.
A Consequence Of History – The Declaration Of Independence
Today, the Great Reformed Church plays a more spiritual role in Hungarian life. The memorable political events of the past two centuries that took place within its walls are gone, but not forgotten. Kossuth’s chair stands as a testament to more turbulent times, when Hungary was searching to regain its independence. An independence that they would eventually recover. Kossuth’s declaration was a major, but also misleading step on the road to that recovery. That it took place within the white washed walls of the Great Reformed Church was not a coincidence, but a consequence of Hungarian history. One where church and state is inextricably intertwined.