Defeating The Defeated: The Martyrs of Arad In Hungarian History

The city of Arad stands close to the Romanian/Hungarian border, in the western extremity of Romania. It is only a handful of miles across the border to Hungary. Historically the city was part of the Kingdom of Hungary, but was given to Romania by the post-World War I Treaty of Trianon whereby Hungary lost nearly two-thirds of its population and over seventy percent of its land base. Many of the Hungarian people who had called this city astride the Mures River their home for generations were forced to flee westward after the treaty was signed, never to return. They not only left behind livelihoods, but also memories of one of the most crucial and bitter moments in modern Hungarian history. There is a reason that the mere mention of Arad evokes feelings of patriotic fervor among Hungarians to this very day. To Hungarians the city’s name is a pseudonym for martyrdom.

Execution of the Martyrs of Arad - Painting by János Thorma.

Execution of the Martyrs of Arad – Painting by János Thorma.

A Harsh Statement – Executing Rebellion In Arad
In 1848 the Hungarians rose up in revolt against the Austrian Habsburgs. At first they met with success. It looked as though they just might finally throw off the Austrian yoke and win independence. The Hungarian victories included the taking of the Arad fortress during the summer of 1849. They then proceeded to make Arad the headquarters for their rebellion. Meanwhile, the Austrians had to call for assistance from their ally Russia. The weight of numbers would prove telling. The Austrians with military support from Russia were able to put down the revolt. The Hungarian military leadership actually surrendered to the Russians, but then dutifully handed them over to the Austrians. Following surrender, the Austrians decided to show no mercy.

Leniency was not something the Habsburgs could afford at this point. Their weakness had been exposed by the Hungarian Revolution. A variety of different ethnic groups numbering in the tens of millions outnumbered the ethnic Germans of the empire. A harsh statement would have to be made or each ethnic group just might rise up as the Hungarians had and demand independence. On October 6th the execution was carried out. Adding insult to injury, the generals were hanged, which was considered to be one of the most humiliating forms of execution.

Legend has it that the Austrian military leadership was drinking beer while the execution took place. Following the ultimate moment they toasted and clinked their glasses together. Whether this is true or not has never been confirmed. Hungarians though definitely believed it. They vowed to not clink their glasses together after a toast for the next 150 years. How they arrived at this number of years is unknown. Even today, fifteen years past the sunset date of that historic vow, Hungarians still considered it to be exceedingly bad manners to clink beer glasses together following a toast. This “Austrian” tradition remains taboo.

The 13 Martyrs of Arad - Lithography by Miklós Barabás

The 13 Martyrs of Arad – Lithography by Miklós Barabás

A Historical Boomerang Effect – The Dual Monarchy
Legends aside, the reality was that the Austrians had sent a message to the Hungarians along with the other ethnic groups of the empire. Rebellion was to be dealt with in the harshest manner possible. Following the executions, the Austrians enacted martial law in Hungary to quell any lasting resistance to their rule. Hungary was now under the iron fist of Austria for the next eighteen years. During this time the Hungarian populace passively resisted Austrian rule. Support for the Habsburg’s waned.

After the Austrians lost the Austro-Prussian War in 1866, they had little choice but to enact a compromise with Hungary to bolster their tottering empire. In 1867 the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary was created whereby Hungary was allowed almost complete autonomy. The compromise called for a very loose union. The two nations would only have common affairs in defense, foreign affairs and budget. Strangely enough, Emperor Franz Joseph who had imposed such a harsh peace on Hungary two decades before would now be crowned the King of Hungary. This was a historical boomerang.

Memorial to the 13 Martyrs in Arad

Memorial to the 13 Martyrs in Arad

Star Crossed – Arad & the Hungarian Historical Narrative
The incident at Arad is one of innumerable ill-fated events in Hungary’s star crossed history. The Hungarians have a long memory of such historical calamities. Arad fits a historical narrative of grasping defeat from the jaws of victory. A history of an almost that turned out to be a not quite good enough. The loss at Arad is one of many that have formed the Hungarian character. The will to overcome these defeats also has shaped the nation’s outlook. Once Hungarians are released from their aspirations and the inevitable let down has occurred, they seem to thrive. This is what happened in the later aftermath of the failed Hungarian Revolution. First they had to taste the bitterness of defeat before they could arrive at a compromise that offered the fruits of a hard won victory. It is such a pity that the martyrs of Arad would not live to experience that triumph.