On the occasion of the anniversary, we regularly hear the boilerplate summary about the Aster Revolution: the establishment of the First Hungarian Republic, the soldiers pinning asters to their hat and Count Mihály Károlyi of the United Party of Independence becoming the head of state. But there is of course another understanding of the events: In a matter of hours, the Kingdom of Hungary, established in 1000, disappears, former prime minister István Tisza is murdered and we surrender, with an assist from Károlyi, 100 thousand square kilometers of our homeland without even a fight. The whole thing starts in Budapest on October 31st, 1918. What happens on this day?
In order to understand the Aster Revolution and the changes it ushers in, we have to go back to how the endgame of World War I unfolds. A war lasting fifty-one months comes to an end. On October 17th, István Tisza makes his famous announcement in the Diet of Hungary that Hungary has lost the war. Political events take on a life of their own. At the beginning of the month, a telegram is sent to Washington in which Charles IV accepts the Wilsonian 14 Points, which were formulated in January as a basis for the armistice negotiations. There is no reply to the telegram for two weeks. By the time a reply does come, Charles has already restructured the western half of the Monarchy via a manifesto, transforming Austria into a federal state. Although it is emphasized that the manifesto does not apply to the Hungarian territories, the consensus underpinning the 1867 Compromise, Ferenc Deák’s arrangement, fractures. These changes are also felt within Hungarian domestic affairs. The opposition ‘48 Independence parties – from which the Károlyi Party emerged in summer 1916 – talk about the need for a new alignment. In a matter of days, news of the famous manifesto and Tisza’s announcement about Hungary’s defeat in the war reaches the soldiers and the infantry trenches. On October 24th, the Entente launches a large-scale offensive in the southwestern theater, and the collapse comes on October 28th. The soldiers fighting on the front can no longer be switched out for fresh troops, which leads to mutinies or outright desertions. Modeled after the “small governments” of the National Councils formed in Austria, the Hungarian National Council is established. For all intents and purposes, new states are formed, although for the moment no one says that the kingdom has ceased to exist. The formation of military councils is also part of the process of dissolution. The one in Budapest is formed on October 25th.
What are these military councils?
Based on the Soviet model, these are autonomous military local councils whose emergence speeds up the dissolution of extant fighting forces, eighty percent of which belongs to the Common Army. By October 28th, the country is mired in a deep domestic crisis to which Charles responds by naming Archduke and Field Marshal Joseph August Homo Regius (“man of the king”) and sending him to Hungary to handle the situation. Then the government led by Sándor Wekerle, who is prime minister for a third time, fails. A skilled problem solver, Wekerle nonetheless admits defeat. When even Archduke Joseph is received as an enemy by the Hungarians, Charles attempts to fill the political vacuum by naming a reliable aristocrat named Count János Hadik as designated prime minister. Hadik is never sworn in, however, because events in Budapest take on a life of their own. The Hungarian National Council urges, nay, agitates for Mihály Károlyi’s appointment. Charles seeks out Gyula Andrássy, who is close to Károlyi on account of his family connections (Károlyi’s wife is Countess Katinka Andrássy, Gyula Andrássy’s niece), for his opinion. He advises against naming Károlyi because he considers Károlyi as untrustworthy and appointing him carries great risk. Charles talks to Károlyi, too, asking him expressis verbis if he wants to declare Hungary a republic. The count answers with an emphatic no. By October 30th-31st, the National Council wants to take over controlling power. Cognizant of how mercilessly General Géza Lukachich, the Commander of Budapest-stationed kaiserlich und königliche (Imperial and Royal) forces, has dealt with deserters, the members of the National Council (which is using the Astoria Hotel as its headquarters) are prepared for Lukachich’s troops to crush their rebellion and imprison them. Incidentally, Lukachich was an outstanding general in World War I, having fought in three different theaters of war. He was awarded the Order of Maria Theresa, the highest military honor in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, in 1917. In the end, Lukachich does not intervene in the Aster Revolution, perhaps because the Common Army’s troops stationed in Budapest are made up of Bosnians, whom he does not consider reliable enough. Charles also signals Lukachich to avoid violence, which is understandable considering the King’s moral perspective.
Why is the army something of a loose cannon?
The Aster Revolution is so called because the soldiers tear off their cap buttons, which are adorned with the King’s initials. It is a public breakup with the Monarchy. Mihály Bíró’s famous poster comes to mind, which shows a soldier tipping Charles over in his throne and demanding a republic (KÖZTÁRSASÁGOT!). During the course of the Aster Revolution, there is little violence. Of course there are a few victims as several soldiers refuse to tear off their cap buttons. Likewise, pro-republic soldiers also tear off the epaulettes of their officers, professing that in the new state there will be no need for them. On October 28th, a bloody confrontation takes place on the Chain Bridge when protestors from the Pest side of the city attempt to make their way to the Buda Castle to deliver their demands for change to Joseph August. Force is used against them, which culminates in three deaths and several injured. Related to the political events of the Aster Revolution is the unsolved murder of Count István Tisza on the late afternoon, around 5 PM, of October 31st. At the time, Tisza is no longer an important decision maker, having stepped down as prime minister in May 1917. Nonetheless, in the eyes of many, his death signifies the collapse of the old world.
Who is (are) behind the assassination?
We are familiar with two narratives, one of which is that soldiers, on a whim, go over to his rented villa and kill him, while the other is that it is a preplanned liquidation. Putting the pieces of the puzzle together, it is probable that the Budapest Military Council has its hand in it. On that note, what roles do Imre Csernyák and József Pogány (later known as John Pepper) play in the murder? They are the two men responsible for organizing the demonstrations on October 30th-31st, during which they take control of armed and security forces. They “lay the gun on the table”, so to speak. They send machine gunners near the Astoria up to the building windows facing what is today Kossuth Street. Later during the Tisza murder trial, several witnesses testify that they are responsible for planning the assassination. Both men end up fleeing Hungary after the collapse of the Hungarian Soviet Republic. The Royal Hungarian Prosecutor General requests their extradition from Austria, but is denied on account that their lives will be in danger. So we do not know what role they play exactly, but the recollection that the soldiers arrive at Tisza’s rented villa on Hermina Road in a truck hints at preplanning rather than spontaneity. Also coming under scrutiny is Mihály Károlyi, but he rebuts any connection to the murder. Though there is no evidence of Károlyi’s participation, the culpability of the Budapest Military Council, on the other hand, has a documented factual basis. What we can say for certain is that by taking out Tisza, whoever committed the murder has done the new system a “favor”.
Source of photography: www.kozpontiantikvarium.hu