I do not remember exactly when, but it was sometime during my first few years in grade school that the word traitor and the name of Benedict Arnold became synonymous in my mind. Arnold was the turncoat who betrayed the Continental Army to the British. His actions dealt a grievous blow to America’s revolutionary effort. Arnold’s reputation has not changed much in my lifetime. I have always felt the assessment of him has been quite fair. The same cannot be said of another supposed arch traitor from the pages of history, the Hungarian general from the 1848 Hungarian Revolution, Artur Gorgei. His turncoat status has been debated by generations of Hungarians. Some of these see Gorgei as a convenient fall guy for Lajos Kossuth. Others see him as the man who surrendered the Hungarian Army in an effort to save his own skin, while still others see him as a symbol of nation that could never accept its surrender. The most interesting thing about Gorgei’s reputation is that it is still in doubt and probably always will be.
Beyond Hope – Surrendering To The Situation
On August 11, 1849 with the tide of military affairs turning decisively against Hungary, its Regent-President Lajos Kossuth fled the nation. Kossuth turned over all authority to General Artur Gorgei who was leading the outmatched Hungarian Army. In effect, Kossuth had absolved himself from responsibility in an untenable situation while at the same time making sure he was safe abroad. By this time, the Russian Army had come in on the side of the Austrian Habsburgs making the Hungarian Army’s position hopeless. Gorgei was a realist, he knew that holding out would only cost more lives in a futile fight for a lost cause. It would not be long before he surrendered, hoping that the Austrians would have mercy on the revolutionaries. They would not, but the Russians saw to it that Gorgei escaped their wrath. Meanwhile, Kossuth who was safely ensconced in Bulgaria, called out Gorgei as “Hungary’s Judas”. This was the same Kossuth who had said to the nation at the time of his abdication that “all hope was at an end”.
If all hope had indeed been lost, then why was Gorgei to blame? Or was Kossuth trying to draw attention away from the fact that he had abandoned the nation at the time of its greatest peril? For their part, the Austrians showed little remorse. Most famously they executed 13 Hungarian military leaders at Arad in what is today Romania. Gorgei’s life was not only spared due to the intervention of Tsar Nicholas I, but he was also paid 1,100 gold coins by the Russian military commander in a show of respect. Though Gorgei used these funds to help his fellow soldiers, most Hungarians were swayed by the myth that Kossuth propagated. In the public’s mind, Gorgei was to become Hungary’s Benedict Arnold, while Kossuth was faithfully still fighting the Revolution in perpetual exile. The fact that Gorgei lived while other fellow officers were executed made it look like he had surrendered in order to avoid the ultimate penalty. Looking at just his decision to surrender in isolation, it is easy to understand how Gorgei’s actions were misconstrued as traitorous behavior.
A Revolt Within A Revolution – Reputation Mismanagement
A more balanced perspective comes from examining Gorgei’s conduct in regard to military affairs in 1848-1849. A case can be made that the Hungarian Revolution would not have met with near the success that it did if not for Gorgei’s military ability. He defeated Croatian and Austrian forces in multiple battles, but also made a strategic blunder by failing to go on the offensive along the Austrian frontier in the first half of 1849. The resulting inaction, coupled with time wasted besieging enemy forces in Buda, allowed the Austrians to regroup. To make matters worse, Gorgei and Kossuth had clashed several times over the conduct of the war. At one point Gorgei had issued a statement calling out the political leaders for trying to micro-manage his military decisions. He fought independent of their authority for a while in the mountains. A revolt within a revolution has never been a good idea.
Gorgei’s military acumen was too valuable for Hungary’s political leaders to ignore his martial talents. Despite the infighting he was placed back in charge of the army and campaigned all the way to the bitter surrender. Thus, Gorgei’s record during the revolution is one of both accomplishment and failure. His reputation, even without the surrender, would have been ambiguous. Gorgei shared a commonality with the controversy that surrounded him, longevity. He and the debate over his actions at the end of the war would not go away. Gorgei lived to be almost a hundred years old, dying at the age of 98 in 1916. He had moved back to Hungary almost half a century earlier, in 1867 following the compromise that created the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Gorgei was still a lightning rod for criticism with public opinion set firmly against him. On several occasions he was met with jeers and derision in public. He was appointed to several important positions, but could not take up these jobs due to protests. A group of his supporters were able to lobby so that Gorgey could finally receive his pension, but other attempts to rehabilitate his reputation were rebuffed. Only after his death did emotions begin to subside. Relations and historians took turns trying to answer the question of whether Gorgei had betrayed his homeland. His own brother produced a three volume defense on his behalf. The historian Domokos Kosary spent almost fifty years examining the controversy, producing a two volume study almost 800 pages in length. Both of these, as well as other works exonerated Gorgey. Yet he continued to be a polarizing figure, either seen as a symbol of betrayal or misunderstood patriot.
Standing Stoic – The Attacks To Come
In 1998 an equestrian statue of Gorgei was placed on Castle Hill in Buda. This was not the first statue of Gorgei in Buda. There had been an earlier one installed prior to World War II. It had been damaged in the Battle of Budapest and the post -war communist government later melted it down. It was rumored to have become part of the material that was used to create the enormous Stalin statue that was subsequently destroyed in yet another Hungarian Revolution, that of 1956. The statue of Gorgei that stands on Castle Hill today shows him on horseback, looking rather stiff and rigid. Perhaps he is bracing himself with stoicism for the attacks on his character that will surely come.