A Novel View of a Hungarian Prime Minister

By Thursfield, Patrick | Contemporary Review, October 1998 | Go to article overview

A Novel View of a Hungarian Prime Minister


Thursfield, Patrick, Contemporary Review


Count Istvan Tisza, Minister President (Prime Minister) of Hungary from 1903 to 1905 and again from 1913 to 1917, was for many years one of the most vilified and unpopular politicians to hold power in the difficult days leading up to and during the first World War. He was almost alone in foreseeing the dangers to his country that lay in the persistent intransigence of most of the political leaders of the day who wasted their time, and that of the Budapest Parliament, by obstructionist tactics over trivial parochial matters while ignoring the sinister build-up of arms by the other Great Powers and the growing tensions between them. Tisza, himself a Transylvanian, was almost alone in recognising not only the justice of many of the claims of the ethnic Romanians in his home province but also the futility of opposing the Habsburg rule by legalistic quibbles over domestic issues of little importance. Blessed, or cursed, by clear sight he foresaw that a European war would be the ruin of his beloved country.

Count Miklos Banffy, another Transylvanian landowner and politician, who was an independent member of Parliament in the crucial years before 1914, became Foreign Minister in 1921/22 and who then retired from public life and devoted the rest of his life to literature and the encouragement of the liberal arts, used Tisza in propria persona in his scathing indictment of the pre-1914 Hungarian folly that was the underlying theme of the great trilogy A Transylvanian Tale that he was to write in the years leading up to the Second World War.

In the penultimate chapter of the third volume, They Were Divided, that appeared in 1940 shortly after the second World War had broken out and which Banffy realised would inevitably bring even greater humiliation to Hungary than had the earlier conflict, there is an eye-witness account of how Count Tisza reacted to the Hungarian war fever that raged in Budapest as soon as Serbia had rejected the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum, thus making it inevitable that the Dual Monarchy would go to war to avenge the murder of the Archduke Franz-Ferdinand at Sarajevo. Though written as fiction this passage accurately describes what Banffy himself experienced on that sad afternoon in the last days of peace in the summer of 1914.

The hero of the novel, one Count Balint Abady (on this occasion the author's alter ego), has quickly returned to Budapest from abroad on heating the appalling news that unprepared Hungary is about to plunge into war. Banffy writes: 'The capital was in a fever of excitement. Though as yet there had been only partial mobilisation, just enough to overrun Serbia.'

'At last!' people said, 'Now we'll teach that rabble a lesson!' Everyone was saying the same thing, the porters in the hotels, the shopkeepers, and even the newspapers. It seemed as if all the world had awoken from some enchanted sleep and in consequence was in high good humour. At the Kazsino Club it was the same, and some of the younger members were already strutting about in the gold braid of the Huzzar uniform or the red and blue of the Lancers. 'We'll teach 'em!' they cried.

'Suddenly the air was filled with heroism and glory, and politics were forgotten. All those petty issues which formerly had aroused such bitter hatreds had been blown away by the winds of war.'

'Balint took refuge in the library. There he read all the papers of the last few days, both the national and international news, so as to learn what had happened between sending the ultimatum and its rejection. Then he went to the party head-quarters which overlooked the boulevard at the corner of Dohany Street and the Karoly Ring. There he would learn the most recent news. Above all he wanted to see Tisza himself and ask how it was that they had got to that point, what preparations had been made and what the Minister-President believed would be the outcome. Above all he wanted to know whether, if war did come, it could be limited to Serbia or whether Russia was expected to intervene, thereby starting a general European holocaust. …

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