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GRANT AWARDEE: Tamás Csapody, Hungary

“Deák Ferenc and the Era of Passive Resistance”

Keywords: absolutism, political philosophies, movement, resistance, passive resistance, non-cooperation, nonviolence, satyagraha, pacifism

Deák Ferenc is unanimously cited as the initiator and central figure of Hungary’s 18th century passive resistance1 in today’s tomes of political history (Deák, 2001A). His letter of April 25, 1850, to the then Justice Minister of Austria, Anton Schmerling, is taken to mark the inception of this turbulent chapter in Hungarian history. Five of his letters are regarded as fundamental to the understanding of the period. Deák’s character and political stature, his personal ethos, political career as well as lifestyle, liberal views and social activities make him the embodiment of the principles of passive resistance.

Stages of Deák’s Passive Resistance

The era commonly referred to as “Hungarian passive resistance” and “Deák’s passive resistance” spans the period between 1849 and 1861. His earlier period that he spent in Zala county (1824-1833), or the one preceding it in the 1820s, and their manifestations of county- and countrywide passive resistance fall beyond the scope of our inquiry. Accordingly, we shall not be dealing with pre-reform (or “pre-revolution”) era passive resistance or the young Deák’s related activities here. We do, however, need to point out the following facts:

  1. In pre-revolution Hungary, this form of social protest was already widespread and popular.
  2. Hungary’s post-revolution passive resistance and Deák’s related political roots (his primary political socialisation) were firmly grounded in Hungary’s passive resistance before 1848.
  3. In passive resistance, we are dealing with a set of overlapping behaviour patterns that form a wall of continuous passive resistance against the same administrative power, i.e. the Habsburgs.
  4. Passive resistance is consistently resorted to by the “powerless”, who have no other means of protest at their disposal.
  5. It is important to point out that, while before the revolution passive resistance was the “weapon” of those not yet able to take to arms, after 1849 it became a form of protest for the defeated and disenfranchised.
  6. With hindsight, it is clear that while pre-revolution instances of passive resistance paved the way for the armed uprising, after 1849 it became a form of rear-guard fighting, mostly sustained by the revolution’s memory.

The era of Deák’s passive resistance is customarily divided into two distinct stages. The first one, which spanned the period between the autumn of 1849 and November 1854, followed the months of hiding in the immediate aftermath of the quashed revolution. During this period, Deák lived on his country estate of Kehida, in the manner befitting his status of landowner and member of rural gentry. Deák led a busy social life and was a patron of Hungarian culture, education and social issues.

It was during this first phase that Deák, as ex-minister of justice, was visited by Anton Schmerling, his Austrian counterpart, and László Szogyény, deputy chancellor of the Hungarian Royal Court between 1847 and 1848, who saw Deák as “Hungary’s most prominent moral and political authority”. Anton Schmerling invited Deák to join his committee whose chief aim was to consolidate Hungary politically by paving the way for the introduction of a new set of civil law directives. Deák, however, flatly refused. He drafted his reply in German: “Due to the disastrous events of the recent past and under the prevailing conditions it is impossible for me to take any kind of public role” (April 25, 1850). This sentence later became the definitive and most frequently quoted political statement of Hungary’s passive resistance.

Deák’s reply to Schmerling was somehow leaked to the Ostdeutsche Post, a Vienna periodical, from where it spawned a myriad of handwritten copies across the land. As a result, the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire was soon plastered with Deák’s strategic message of noncooperation.

The second seminal letter of the era was from Szogyény to Deák. In it, he asked his old friend for advice as to whether he should accept a post in the 1851 Habsburg Council. Deák penned an encouraging reply and assured him of his continued moral support. He closed his letter with these words “May the Lord lead Your Excellency on this righteous path of service for the betterment of our long-suffering land.” Szögyény took Deák’s advice and filled the position between 1851 and 1860. He subsequently became Lord Lieutenant (föispán), Magister Tavernicorum (tárnokmester) and a circuit judge.

Confusingly, this far less quoted sentence of Deák’s, which was separated from his previous, definitive utterance by no more than a week, betrays a diametrically opposed attitude. There are quite a few explanations available to illuminate the reasons behind such a conceptual leap. Some surmise that Deák’s friendship took precedence over his political allegiance, others claim that the disparity of the two quotes simply evinces Deák’s legendary loyalty, liberalism and reluctance to proselytise. In his letter he wholeheartedly supported his old friend’s endeavours to cooperate with the powers-that-be, even though he himself took the stance of passive resistance.

In 1854 Deák relocated to the capital for good, a move which marks the end of the first phase of his passive resistance. The motives behind his move are unclear, though the most popular explanations variously attribute it to financial and/or private reasons as well as the intention to rejoin the political scene. (The litigation over his estate had drawn to a close, which enabled him to sell and live off the proceeds in his new home for life). In any case, the move had strong political undertones, which attracted publicity (it was duly featured in one Austrian and one Hungarian periodical). Pesti Napló made a point of running a piece on Deák’s move in order to encourage others to follow his example. The paper’s motives may have been any and all of the following: to further communication and solidarity among Hungarians, present a united front, and help Hungary grow and flourish. The secret police, in turn, also acted in concert and produced weekly reports on Deák’s activities. (When he was in Vienna, this was stepped up to a feverish pace of one every hour.) Deák’s most quoted biographer, Ferenczi, calls this 1854-1868 period “seminal”, during which Deák became a “leader of unmatched stature of Hungary’s public opinion and thinking”. (Ferenczi, 1904).

Deák in Pest

During this period, Deák became a cohesive force, a reference point and a hub of passive resistance by running a political salon, nurturing the Hungarian language and culture, and nourishing the spirit of scientific enquiry. He turned his hotel room into a centre of free social and political communication (Deák Club, Everyday Salon). He contributed to the use of Hungarian language, the development of culture and to a lesser degree the growth of the economy in three ways: personal example, the establishment of a national intellectual pantheon (hall of fame) and the use of the Hungarian language as the medium of national cultural exchange.

Deák made regular visits to the National Theatre, to the National Casino (a hub of cultural activity), to the Kisfaludy Society (the national forum of the literati), to the Society of Economists and to the races which became a symbol of Hungarian national identity. Deák also supported eminent anti-Habsburg activists and, after their deaths, kept their memory alive. Two such illustrious representatives were the poet laureate Vörösmarty Mihály and Kazinczy Ferenc, a pioneer of Hungarian literary revival. In the aftermath of Vörösmarty’s death (November 18, 1855), Deák protected his legacy and supported his bereaved family. Unannounced speeches at Vörösmarty’s funeral were specifically banned by the government. His funeral subsequently drew a 20 000-strong, silent crowd of protesters against the absolutist administration. Since he could not speak at the funeral, Deák sent some eight hundred letters of appeal to every corner of the country in an attempt to secure the Vörösmarty family’s continued wellbeing; the results exceeded expectations. Deák also contributed to the writing of the great poet’s biography and took joint custody of his children (1855-1868).

Deák also participated in the work of the committee organising a series of commemorative events dedicated to the life of Ferenc Kazinczy, the reformer of the Hungarian language. At the close of a banquet he raised his glass with the words “Prayer shall seal this occasion. My prayer is simple: Long live our land.” His words were immortalised as the national slogan of continued passive resistance.

The most frequently cited feature of Deák’s passive resistance, which eventually grew into its chief expression, is that of the nurture of the Hungarian language. Deák consistently spoke up against enforced official germanisation. Short of descending into nationalism, he took every opportunity to use Hungarian as the language of communication in everyday life, literature and science. His extensive correspondence is often used to illustrate his commitment to the cause of the Hungarian language. In particular, in two of his letters to his old friend, Mrs. Géza Báthory (born Szidónia Inkey), dated January 10 and February 15, 1857, he writes: “we are battered by a great storm, … constantly attacked by the powers-that-be” and the only way forward for Hungarians is to hang on to their identity by wearing their resplendent national costume and using their language. “Use it we must, wherever we gather beyond the reaches of our oppressors for amusement or serious endeavour, as part of keeping our culture alive.” In another letter he writes that “we, in Pest, have no desire to become German, and the more we are pushed into a corner, the more we shall resist. This is a natural instinct in man and nation alike: the instinct to survive.

The third focal point of Deák’s passive resistance was the MTA (the Hungarian Academy of Sciences), where he had been an honorary member since 1839. His aim here was to buttress Hungarian science by defending MTA’s independence and introducing Hungarian as its language of operation through the election of appropriate members, granting awards to works submitted in Hungarian, and founding the MTA’s own publishing house. Following his appointment to its Board in February 16, 1855, he strove to “rejuvenate” the MTA. As a Board member, Deák worked hard to counter the Emperor’s directives, to promote Hungarian as the language of arts and sciences in Hungary, and to win the right to freely appoint MTA members and staff (1858).

He wrote the Emperor an appeal (our next piece of evidence of his campaign of passive resistance) which was rejected, but the MTA was assured of the continuance of its original rights.

Publicity for Deák’s passive resistance was provided by the national press. Though enjoined from upfront political discourse, Hungarian newspapers and periodicals ran pieces with unmistakably subversive undertones and thus became the forums of the nation’s spiritual and political rebirth. At the forefront of change was the vastly popular daily Pesti Napló, edited by Zsigmond Kemény, one of Deák’s best friends. (They stayed at the same hotel and talked daily.) Through associations like this, Deák’s influence was keenly felt throughout the national press. Although Deák himself very rarely penned features, visiting journalists, writers and friends (Antal Csengery, Pál Gyulai, Ferenc Salamon, etc.) faithfully relayed his message to readers everywhere.

Deák in the New Political Setting

By the end of the decade the international balance of power had shifted. The Austrian Court had suffered substantial losses, both in its monetary and military might, which had partly been brought about by the widespread non-payment of taxes, resistance to recruitment and desertion. Austria had conceded defeat to France and the Sard-Piemont Kingdom, and the Italian revolutionary movement seemed to be gathering pace (1859). Both the Austrian and Hungarian sides were growing tired of passive resistance. This prompted Austria to attempt a controlled reform of its absolutist administration. Franz Joseph issued his October Diploma, (October 20, 1860). Officially, this was supposed to bring Deák’s post-revolution phase of passive resistance to a close.

The October Diploma ushered in a period of path-finding under the new neoabsolutist rule (1860-1861), followed by the so-called provisorium (1861-1865), with an attitude of wait-and see. But Deák’s, and by implication Hungary’s, passive resistance was far from over. Although Deák and Hungary in general were now allowed to engage openly and directly in politics, and reasons for the cessation of passive resistance were mounting, this did not materialise.

Deák found the Diploma’s concessions insufficient and remained steadfast to his old principles of passive resistance. He refused to take part in the Esztergom Assembly (October 1861), which dealt with the new, temporary election laws. Although he did appear in Vienna at the Emperor’s request on December 27, 1860 (together with his friend József E&oulm;tvös), he didn’t accept the offer of a government post. He did, however, accept the position of MP for Inner Pest (December 31, 1860), which he followed up with his first public speech at the Pest City assembly (January 17, 1861). With this, Deák put an end to his old “war of attrition” tactics and stepped into the public eye, making the established constitutional structures his vehicle for pursuing his political goals going forward.

Deák thus seemingly distanced himself from passive resistance. In fact, he merely stepped out of his former silence and chose a new forum for the continued defiance of the October Diploma. His reservations about the document chimed with the Pest Assembly (February 1, 1861). Deák took the opportunity to broadcast his message of continued (non-violent) defiance to the Court’s excesses. He summed up his stance in the concept of “Law and Justice”, under which he denied the legality of taxes levied by the Court.

In response, the Emperor revoked the October Diploma replacing it with the February Patent (February 26, 1861), which constituted a reversal of Franz Joseph’s position and even negated the 1848 constitution.

The Hungarian Parliament (also known as the Diet) began its long announced session on July 21, 1861, with Deák present. Here, Deák found concord with his peers about his legal criteria for a peaceful and legal settlement with Austria, and presented these in a petition to the Emperor. His petition found no favour with the Court and was formally rejected on July 21. Deák, in turn, reformulated his message in even stronger terms, whereupon the Emperor dissolved the Diet, with military intervention on a hair trigger (August 22,1861). Left with no other alternative, Deák lodged a public protest against the Emperor. In this, he proclaimed the policy of rejecting the Emperor’s laws, and the principles of nonviolent noncooperation with Austria. In short, he openly declared a war of passive resistance on Austria.

Deák also made clear his conviction that both the public and the Hungarian authorities will heed the message of the Diet and follow his example. He then returned to his former post-revolution lifestyle, this time in Pest. Deák became an embodiment of the principles of passive resistance. He ran a political salon, supported use of the Hungarian language and the preservation of national culture as well as its integration with the sciences, and created a hall of fame of eminent Hungarians. A new feature of his passive resistance was his endeavour to pen a treatise in late 1862 on civil law in defence of Hungarian constitutional rights and his own convictions. The work saw the light of day in both German and Hungarian in the spring of 1865. Its uncompromising message detailed the importance of the preservation of constitutional rights and had repercussions in both domestic and foreign policy. Most importantly, it prepared the way for the approaching peace-treaty.

By this time, Deák was in talks with the Court (end of 1864-April 1865) then went on to publish in the Pesti Napló his momentous declaration, the Easter Article (April 16, 1865). In it, he made clear his trust of and willingness to cooperate with the Court. This marked the start of the era of cooperation and civil law debates, which two years later ended in the signing of the Compromise (facilitated by Austria’s defeat at Königgrätz against the Prussians on July 3, 1966). The Easter Article marked the end of Deák’s and the nation’s passive resistance and ushered in a new era.

Deák’s Progress

As we have seen, the course of Hungarian national passive resistance and Deák’s personal version may intertwine and bifurcate, but both break down into two stages which, in turn, subdivide into several periods and segments characterised by differences in focus. The so-called Zala years (the pre-revolution stage of passive resistance) were followed by the Kehida years (1849-1855), the first half of the post-revolution stage. The 1855-1865 period, the second half, was spent in Pest. Deák’s definitive document on non-cooperation, and hence passive resistance, emerged at the very beginning of the Kehida years. Deák spent all three segments of the Pest period (1855-1860, 1860-1861, 1861-1865) striving to build an independent Hungarian political and cultural identity complete with sovereign institutions and alternative patterns of behaviour (a “positive program” with a proactive focus). The Pest period’s first two segments were separated by two months’ contemplative silence, with a major shift in Deák’s choice of the most appropriate form of political discourse. The eight month long second segment of this period ended with an unequivocal public call for passive resistance. In the third and final section his focus shifted towards making preparations for the signing of the Compromise agreement with Austria.

Roots of Deák’s Passive Resistance

The tomes of reference on the period provide ample scope for our investigation into the roots of Deák’s passive resistance. His Roman Catholic upbringing (he went to no fewer than three R.C. schools) and sensibilities (even though he was no church-goer), liberal political leanings and the impression his Latin and German political, legal and literary studies made on him could all be identified as definitive influences on his ethos. We may also regard his university years (he read law), spent in Pest among the cream of young intellectuals as decisive, along with his first-hand knowledge of the resistance in Zala County, his homeland. His brother Antal, fourteen years his senior, was a hero of the Zala resistance; when unlawful recruitment started, he resigned from his post of Chief Administrative Officer (föszolgabíró) for Zala County (1821).

Most probably, all of these events, experiences, knowledge and relationships contributed to crystallising in his character the values of passive resistance that drove him to attain the stature he did. This said, we do not know which specific teacher, school, discipline, friend or book happened to be the decisive factor in shaping his tactics. In contrast to Gandhi, whose every point on the path to political punch is well documented, we cannot even begin to surmise the stages of Deák’s early philosophical development. Deák, unlike Gandhi, did not write about this-we have no authentic texts to follow. All we can therefore rely on in the reconstruction of his interpretation of passive resistance is what has survived from the published items of his correspondence (which contain sparse references on this subject) and his friends’ descriptions of Deák’s life. From this, we can see that although passive resistance was, for Deák, a conscious political decision, he nevertheless failed to transform it into a cogent theory and practice. What he lacked was a defined program, clear leadership, and a focussed use of resources. So, we are left with not only an opaque impression of his motivational drivers, but also a fuzzy sense of his ideology. No wonder, then, that the overall picture of his brand of passive resistance is far from clear. This also explains why it was interpreted in so many different ways and shanghaied to serve so many political agendas (Pap, 2003).

Deák was a lighthouse-although the beacon of his passive resistance was seen far and wide, its source was static. Furthermore, his passive resistance was dormant by default, and needed gross abuses of power to bring it to life (Horánszky, 2003). Passive resistance came “naturally” to Deák; he needed no moral justification for it. Deák never opted for open confrontation. Passive resistance was his reply when his county was threatened (1825-1847), after the revolution (1849), when he found his views set against those of Kossuth and threatening to unravel the united national front against the Habsburgs (1848), when József Eötvös asked for his opinion on his political pamphlet (1859), and whenever an honest deal was not an option and others would have revolted or knuckled under (1849-1865). While Deák was universally regarded as passive resistance personified, he did nothing to lead, organise or ideologically underpin it. He promoted the tactics of passive resistance, yet he never advertised his views on these tactics publicly.

These facts most emphatically show how much passive resistance was in the air, how the social environment and public mood were exactly right for its conscious or spontaneous adoption. It became one of the chief personal and national survival strategies after the quashed revolution and the ensuing atmosphere of terror. This, however, does not to diminish Deák’s stature (or devalue his satyagraha personality). In fact, this puts an even greater emphasis on Deák and the questions surrounding passive resistance.

The Compromise (or Ausgleich, the reconciliation treaty between Austria and Hungary) is Deák’s life’s work, which is grounded in passive resistance. Not forgetting the important economic and European political circumstances, which we will not go into here, it was passive resistance that made it possible to put an end to violence and cope with the palpably prevalent tensions arising from a climate of continual confrontation and conflict. The signing of the treaty was a controversial issue from the start, which is amply illustrated by the continuation of passive resistance after 1867. It remained, however, on a local (county) level and was not endorsed by Deák. Nonetheless, Deák remained the undisputed, victorious leader of the triumphant movement of passive resistance. He became a mythological hero and was immortalised in Hungarian folklore (Voigt, 2003).

Deák and Gandhi

Deák’s role in nineteenth century Hungarian history can be likened to Gandhi’s role in India. Deák’s passive resistance, which predates Gandhi’s satyagraha movement (focused on the repudiation of unjust laws and using passive resistance as a means to fight them) by at least half a century, proved to be at least as effective a strategy as Gandhi’s. Deák, as Gandhi, began his career in the legal profession. He was a solicitor in his early years and throughout his life he retained his passion for the long-term and peaceful resolution of public and private conflicts. He believed in give-and-take. Though he did concede the necessity of war as a means of national self-defence, and lined up legal arguments for such a war, he remained a resolute pacifist during the 1848 revolution. He saw no avenues of acceptable solutions to conflicts beyond those of the law, a principle he hung on to till his death.

Deák was the son of a country squire, and his family’s limited means instilled a frugal, even puritanical attitude in him from the start. He spent his free time carving wood in a small workshop he set up wherever he lived. Deák fought social injustice in all of his capacities: as a lawyer, landowner, MP and later as Justice Minister and member of the gentry. He took a wholly modern stance on the issues of freedom of thought, speech and press as well as on religious orientation. In the issues of capital punishment, compulsory military service and prison conditions, his views differed only slightly from current human rights views. Deák was personally and politically incorruptible, a moral and intellectual authority and benchmark both in Hungary and in Austria. Despite this, he never accepted any of the high positions variously offered to him. His life was governed by the concepts of truthfulness, the rule of justice, and the rejection of unjust laws. The moral and life standards that he embodied made the decade of passive resistance hallmarked by his name border on the absolute values of satyagraha.

Despite enjoying the full confidence both the Emperor and the political parties of Hungary, “the Sage of the Country” did not accept the offer of the post of Prime Minister offered to him following the signing of the Compromise treaty on February 7, 1867. Instead, he recommended Gyula Andrássy, a minister during the revolution, who had just came back to Hungary from his emigration. He returned the Court’s gift and did not show up at the Emperor’s inauguration as King of Hungary on June 8, 1867. When Franz Joseph asked for his comments, he suggested that the coronation gifts be bestowed upon the widows, orphans and veterans of the revolution. The coronation brought amnesty for political prisoners, and those still in hiding abroad were granted a safe return home. Deák continued his work in politics and lived his life in the spirit of satyagraha.

Deák’s Heritage

Deák’s memory is cherished to this day. The 200th anniversary of his birth was widely commemorated across Hungary in 2003. Scores of publications, both popular and scientific, saw the light of day in celebration of the life this great statesman (Pajkossy, 2004). The Hungarian government spent a record sum of HUF 234 million (? 1 M) on the anniversary in 2003. To visualise the size of this sum, imagine a stack of 11 750 twenty thousand forint banknotes, Hungary’s highest denomination, which happen to bear Deák’s image.

Deák’s ethos and example have become ingrained in Hungarian public consciousness. His choice of passive resistance has been hailed as part of Hungary’s “national character”, and his person has been immortalized by famous Hungarian authors, such as Mihály Babits, Gyula Szekfü, László Németh, István Bibó. His memory was very much kept alive during the country’s second post-revolution era, which commenced on November 4,1956 and ended in 1989. This author suspects, however, that our hero’s popularity persists not because he is the creator, but rather because he is the embodiment of Hungary’s national character, and the spirit of this nation’s passive resistance harks back to the dim and distant past of Hungary’s history.


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1 Based on literature (Gandhi, 1998; Thoreau, 1990; Sharp, 1985) I define passive resistance as a form of nonviolent resistance using noncooperation, civil disobedience and satyagraha as its components; a series of nonviolent political protests, whose exponents, while peaceful, are not opposed to explicit violence on principle. At the core of passive resistance lies a mass-scale, upfront declaration of noncooperation with the powers-that-be, without the upfront acceptance of punishment.