March 15th is the preeminent date in modern Hungarian history. As such, it has also become one of the most important national holidays in the country. The date is when the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 broke out. The revolutionaries began the day by marching through Pest reading aloud Sandor Petofi’s National Song (Nemzeti dal) along with their 12 Points for reform in response to the onerous rule of the Habsburg-led Austrian Empire. The most famous event of that day was a mass rally at the newly completed National Museum. There was another event that day atop Castle Hill in Buda which is much less well known than it should be. The culmination of this event was the release of a Hungarian freedom fighter whose egalitarian ideals and democratic radicalism was as much an expression of the revolution, as his liberation from prison was representative of the changes suddenly brought on by the revolution.
A Surfeit Of Surnames – Gate To The Past
Go anywhere in Hungary and you will find a surfeit of surnames gracing the streets of cities, towns, villages and neighborhoods. Make a name for yourself in Hungarian history and it will become a street name somewhere in the country. Sometimes streets in famous districts do not always have the most familiar names attached to them, at least not famous to a westerner such as myself. This was the case with Mihaly Tancsics utca, which begins just off Besci ter (Vienna square) then runs along the northeast side of Castle Hill and ends not far from the Matthias Church. I knew nothing about Mihaly Tancsics and most guidebooks did not devote any space to explaining who he was or what he had done. I figured that Tancsics must have done something of historical importance to have his name given to one of the main streets on Castle Hill. What I did not realize, until I later did my own research, was just how much of Tancsics remarkable life story was connected to this area.
Mihaly Tancsics can be found just below the walls that still guard the northern side of Castle Hill today. I walked right past a statue of him, barely taking the time to notice that it had been placed not far outside the Vienna Gate (Becsi kapu). I had no idea who he was or what he had done to gain such a spot. He was portrayed wearing a cloak that covered the upper half of his body. In his right arm he held several books. It was an odd representation, open to interpretation because of his portrayal in such a benign manner. It did little to make me want to learn more about Tancsics. Considering what I would later discover about his life, this was a shame. The fact that a statue of Tancsics stands just outside the Vienna Gate is ironic. In a sense he has finally been freed from the confines of the Castle District. A place where he spent two different periods of his life imprisoned behind walls there.
A Restless & Radical Hungarian – Simmering With Discontent
From its very beginnings as the seat of Hungarian power in the 13th century right up through today, most people have come to the Castle District by choice. Mihaly Tancsics was different, he was brought here against his will. Most people, including myself, would like to spend more time in the Castle District, Tancsics would have preferred to spend less. Yet now Tancsics is commemorated just outside the gate that once guarded the road between Buda and Vienna. A Vienna that was home to an administrative apparatus that held the power of life, death and imprisonment over Tancsics beginning in the mid-1840’s. This was a time when Hungary had grown increasingly restless under Austrian rule. Tancsics was both restless and radical. He wrote and printed pamphlets that propagated ideas that were a threat to the powers that be. Prior to the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 he advocated for universal suffrage, an abolition to serfdom with little to no compensation for landlords and equal rights for all.
Tancsics used the power of his pen to disseminate these ideas for publication. And he enjoyed the additional asset of authenticity. The fact that his parents were serfs and he had an intimate understanding of their struggle made his writings that much more powerful. Tancsics was a self-made man, who had managed to work his way up the ladder of life, from weaver to school teacher. He then proceeded to travel across much of Europe on foot. These life experiences gave him a unique perspective on the problems faced by the working and lower classes in Hungary at that time. The Austrian authorities had Tancsics arrested in 1847 for his writings. His ideas were too radical, especially in a Hungary that was chafing under imperial authority and simmering with discontent. He was imprisoned in the Jozsef Barracks on Castle Hill.
Further Than They Had Ever Gone Before – Rallying A Nation
The building in which Tancsics was confined still exists today. Ironically, it can be found on a street in the Castle District now named for him. In a room on the street side of #9 Tancsics utca, Mihaly Tancsics spent the year before revolution broke out in prison. Two plaques adorn the wall of this building, one tells how Lajos Kossuth – one of the most famous men in Hungarian history – was also imprisoned in the structure during the 1840’s. The other, just two windows down from the entrance, commemorates Tancsics’ imprisonment.
In Hungary both men are well known, but Kossuth’s fame transcends borders. He is an icon of Hungary and his portrait can be found in many English language history books on Modern Europe. Kossuth’s name and face are synonymous with the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. He is the historical standard bearer, along with Sandor Petofi, of the fight for Hungarian independence from the Austrians. And yet Tancsics was much more in touch with the common man, the uneducated, the serfs and wage laborers. Most Hungarians in the 19th century had more in common with Tancsics than Kossuth. And Tancscis, not Kossuth, was the focus of specific events on March 15th which rallied the masses to go further in revolt than they had ever gone before.