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Commemorating 1848: freedom for Hungary, freedom for Europe

| March 20, 2017

On March 15th, Hungary commemorates its role in Europe’s “Age of Revolution,” the movements that rose up in 1848 to call for national self-determination and independence from the Habsburg Empire. In today’s Europe, as Prime Minister Orbán pointed out in his national day speech, we once again see “signs, which signal there are problems in the [European] empire.”

Hungary’s 1848 revolution played a significant part in the “national awakening” that swept over Europe in the 19th century, but the revolution and war for independence is also another chapter in a longer Hungarian story about revolution and fighting for freedom. With what seems like almost suicidal bravery, Hungarians have turned to revolution repeatedly. In 1703, it was the Rákóczi revolution. In 1848, it was the fight for independence from the monarchy, and in 1956, the people of Hungary rose up against Soviet oppression.

History has taught us, Prime Minister Orbán observed, that even if we lose a battle, we may still overcome and outlive the oppressors. “The Tatars vanished. The Ottoman Empire disappeared. The Habsburg Empire dissolved and the colossal Soviet [Empire] simply died out.” Victory for the revolutionaries often comes in the form of survival.

“[T]oday not a single people – including the Hungarian people – can be free if Europe is not free, (and today) Europe – our common home – is not free” – the prime minister said in his March 15th speech last year. This year, he lamented the threats to this freedom.

The nations of Europe are today confronted by an “the unholy alliance of Brussels bureaucrats, the liberal, international media and insatiable international capital,” the prime minister said.

This enemy is, to be sure, a different kind of opponent than the Habsburgs in 1848 or the Soviets in 1956. They do not imprison those who think differently, nor attack with deadly military force, nor torture and execute. The threat they pose is quite different, but they push for a similar result by suppressing national sovereignty and undermining our freedom and independence, ignoring the voice of the people.

The winds of ’48 are blowing once again in Europe, and it presents the opportunity for Hungary and the like-minded nations of Europe “to deeply transform in a peaceful and orderly way the European empire.” It presents an opportunity to restore strength to Europe, reinforcing a Europe of nations with strong borders and a confidence in our cultural identity, where national sovereignty is respected and the voice of the citizens heard.

March 15th is a central point in Hungary’s modern history. On that day in 1848, Hungarian poets, revolutionaries and freedom fighters led a demonstration that would turn into a full-fledged war for independence from the Habsburgs. At the rally they held on the steps of the newly built National Museum in downtown Budapest, the revolutionaries read out the 12 points (a list of demands to the Habsburg governor) co-authored by the poet Sándor Petőfi and his Nemzeti Dal, a revolutionary poem. In his verse, Petőfi calls freedom-loving people to action:

“Shall we be slaves or men set free

That is the question, answer me!”

“The importance of 1848 is not that it happened,” said Prime Minister Orbán in Wednesday’s speech, “but that it is still happening.” Petőfi’s question remains relevant to this day.