Hungary is a country that has suffered from invasion and occupation by foreign armies on numerous occasions. Mongols, Turks, Austrians, Germans and Soviets, the list is long. Hungarians are more than glad to recount such foreign incursions and provide it as a plausible explanation of why their country never quite achieved greatness. It is true that the effects of occupation were grim, especially on national development. At times Hungary was the playground for empires, a pawn in a game of European power politics, used by outsiders in the service of their own interests.
Among the side effects of this historical trend has been the development of a Hungarian mindset that sees their nation as fated to suffer at the hands of great powers. This has blinded many Hungarians to a time when their territory, if not their men, escaped one of the worst European conflagrations. Hungarians were lucky to avoid the worst excesses of the Napoleonic Wars. The scars they incurred were largely indirect, unlike much of Europe which endured years of violent conflict that brought untold destruction. This was one of the few times time when Hungary was touched by peace, rather than the hard hand of war.
Same Place, Different Name – A Battle To Remember
Gyor, on the Kisalfold (Little Plain) of northern Transdanubia, was about the last place I expected to find a reference to Napoleon, just as Paris was about the last place I expected to find a reference to Gyor. The latter reference I discovered while visiting the Arc De Triomphe many years ago. I noted the many famous victories of Napoleon and the French Army listed on the monument, but there were some names I did not recognize. One of these, Raab, was at the top of a list on the bottom row. It left me totally baffled. I searched my memory trying to recall any mention of a battle by that name. Eventually I gave up. The name looked more like a misspelling or historical typo, rather than a famous victory.
Where was this mysterious Raab to be found? I imagined it was somewhere deep within the pages of unread history books. Little did I know that it was in northern Hungary hiding behind a very different name, that of Gyor. Connecting Raab with Gyor would not have meant anything to me, even if I had known about the Battle of Raab at the time. Only after traveling to Gyor did I have a better understanding of that connection. Raab is the German name for Gyor. Almost every Hungarian city also has a German name. This hearkens back to a time when ethnic Germans made up a large percentage of the urban population in cities of the Kingdom of Hungary. That was certainly true of Gyor. Because the main language of the Habsburg Army was German, the battle they fought on the fringes of Gyor with one of Napoleon’s armies became known to historians, except for Hungarian ones, as the Battle of Raab.
An Indirect War – Fighting On Foreign Fields
Raab was the only large battle of the Napoleonic Wars fought on the soil of present day Hungary. While most of Europe was torn apart by war during the reign of Napoleon, Hungary was a place of relative peace. That was until the last week of spring in 1809. This was when a Hungarian noble levy that had raised 20,000 soldiers joined with 16,000 Habsburg regulars to face off against an army led by Napoleon’s able Italian viceroy, Eugene de Beauharnais. The Franco-Italian force consisted of 39,000 soldiers under his command. The two armies clashed just a couple of miles south of Gyor’s city center, where the village of Kismegyer is located. A fierce battle resulted in over 13,000 killed, wounded and missing. The Hungarian militia broke and ran at a decisive moment in the battle. 80% of those raised by the Hungarian noble levy fled. The Battle of Raab ended in a triumph for the Franco-Italian force. This defeat was enough to quell any further ideas about a Hungarian noble levy providing the Habsburgs with troops.
The effect of the Napoleonic Wars on Hungary turned out to be paradoxical. They did little damage and for many years were good for the economy. Noble landowners made out like bandits as the price of grain soared. Hungary was the Habsburg Empire’s breadbasket, providing the grain that fed the Imperial armies. Higher taxes and military recruitment in Hungary was shifted to its large population of serfs. Hungary supplied a million men to the Habsburg Armies, almost all of which came from the peasantry. Napoleon attempted to get the Hungarians to revolt against their Habsburg overlords. His efforts were in vain. The Habsburg Emperor, Francis II (1792 – 1835), made just enough concessions to keep the Hungarian nobility satisfied. In addition, the nobles were not going to support a radical French system of government which would probably bring about the end of their power. That probably turned out to be a good thing, judging by how independence turned out for Polish nationalists who supported Napoleon.
Sleepover – A Single Night That Lasts Forever
Hungary turned out to be an afterthought for Napoleon, but Hungarians in Gyor have not forgotten about him. On Kiraly utca 4 in the Baroque heart of Gyor’s Belvaros stands the Napoleon House. The brilliant Corsican only spent one night of his life in Hungary. The house which now bears his name was built from three different houses in the latter part of the 18th century. It was converted into a two-story Baroque house, which was its layout during Napoleon’s visit. Today it houses a municipal art gallery, but it is best known as the only place in Hungary where Napoleon bedded down for the night. If not for his stay there, the house would be just another example of elegant Baroque architecture.
Gyor’s tourism authority has done a good job of making that single night last forever. After hearing about it, I went to see the building. If Napoleon had spent more time in Hungary no one, including myself, would give a second thought to the house. On the other hand, Gyor is getting a bit of latter day repayment via tourism for what was lost to Napoleon’s troops. Those troops ended up looting and demolishing Gyor Castle. It seems that everywhere Napoleon went, destruction followed. Hungarians should be glad he and his troops never came back.
Click here for: The Bishop’s Tomb – An Act Of Faith (Vilmos Apor Part One)