Tax Resistance in the Struggle for Hungarian Independence

After the military suppression of Hungarian independence in , Hungarian nationalists embarked on campaigns of nonviolent resistance to try to press their cause. Tax resistance was among the tactics they used.

Today I’ll share some mentions of Hungarian tax resistance from the English-language press of the time (mostly from the recently-released Spectator archives).

The first mention I found comes from the Spectator:

There is a considerable movement in Hungary. Not only the students and Liberals are engaged in it, but the Conservative nobles themselves. The Hungarian language, the constitution of , the ancient rights of the people, and of the Protestants, are demanded on all sides. It is even said that some nobles have refused to pay taxes.

The Yorkshire Gazette of had a brief note that included this detail:

The collection of taxes encounters a passive resistance of a most dogged character, and the success of the people of the Romagna is the favourite topic among all classes.

The issue was still mostly anticipating rather than reporting:

It is stated that, should not the former constitution of Hungary be restored by the [Austrian] Emperor, a refusal to pay the taxes will be organized throughout the kingdom.

But the issue had more concrete news to report, though again, very briefly:

“The accounts which reach us from Hungary,” says the Leipzic Gazette, “are still very serious. The pubic mind in that country is much agitated, and this feeling extends every day more and more to the provinces which formerly constituted part of Hungary. The collection of the taxes begins to be attended with serious difficulties, and has already given rise to several regrettable incidents. The arrests to which it was found necessary to have recourse at Temeswar are of a very serious character, as twenty persons among them belong to the higher classes of society. Incendiary proclamations are said to have been found in their possession.”

The issue had this to say:

There are rumours of a fierce reaction in Court circles at Vienna. The Hungarians, who all along have demanded their Constitution, have employed the privileges granted by the recent Patent to revive their ancient provincial organization. At first, it was believed that the Emperor would yield, but a letter from Pesth, of , thus condenses an ordinance just received– “An Imperial ordinance, published by the Aulic Chancellerie, has reached the Government of Buda. It … [among other things] … proclaims the intention of the Government to act severely against all who refuse to pay taxes, and other decisions adopted on that subject.”

The various counties of Hungary met to decide how to respond to Imperial demands. From the Spectator comes this quote from the response given by the general assembly of the county of Gran:

“…your Majesty is as much bound to uphold the constitutional rights, privileges, and independence of the Hungarian nation as the nation is bound to be faithful to the King, and to recognize his hereditary rights. … Your Majesty insists on the payment of the taxes, but they, in virtue of the Pragmatic Sanction, must be granted by the Diet. Illustrious King, there is a story relative to the levy of taxes by force of arms and without a grant from the Diet, and the point of it is, that King Francis Ⅰ., your Majesty’s illustrious grandfather, said to the nation, Doluit paterno cordi nostra — pained our paternal heart.

That article noted that “All the counties have now reported, in answer to the Imperial rescript, and all insist on the Constitution of 1848.” The issue gave these updates:

A conference between the local notabilities and the Chancellor of Hungary, intended to remove difficulties, ended in nothing. The Hungarian Lord-Lieutenants refused to recommend their countrymen to pay taxes till the laws of were restored.

Taxes are already collected in Hungary by the soldiery, and, in short, all the signs which precede revolution are once more manifest in Austria.

The Spectator adds:

…all taxes are now collected in Hungary by collectors backed by military force, the soldiery being quartered on any village which refuses its arrears. These soldiers are all foreigners, the Hungarian regiments being retained in Germany and Bohemia, where they are surrounded by hostile populations.

A summary of the situation is given in the Spectator:

Hungary, according to M. [Ferenc] Deak, is a Sovereign State [and] also, a State with a free constitution, which must be acknowledged and restored in its entirety before a legal regime can be recommenced, or Frances Joseph be legally crowned King. Till he is crowned he can do no sovereign act; and as the First Estate remains in abeyance, the Diet, which consists of three Estates, can raise no taxes or do any other act competent to a governing power. There is no mistaking the meaning of M. Deak, and little hope that the Hungarians will recede. A powerful party consider even these terms too servile: the people, by paying taxes only on compulsion, announce their adherence to their leader’s views, and the will of the nation must be considered finally expressed.

M. Deak evidently still hopes for an amicable compromise. The Diet agrees that it will accept its share of the general debt, and will pay taxes while negotiating a compromise. The people are not actively resisting the levy of taxes by force, and though this passive attitude may be the result of moderation, it may be also that of fear. Hesitation always invites attack, and Austrian statesmen, whatever their faults, have always displayed political courage in excess. …[T]he emperor may believe that the time for a struggle with Hungary has arrived. The actual situation, at all events, is becoming unendurable. The empire cannot exist without a revenue, nor can it for any length of time levy the taxes by military force.

The Spectator provides this anecdote:

The troops are billeted on all who refuse to pay the taxes, and behave with the usual insolence of Austrians. In the town of Gran, for example, sixty-two men are billeted on the burgomaster who has been driven into his stable, fifty on the captain of the city, and thirty-six on an engineer living in lodgings. The inhabitants, however, do not yield, and only eighty-six of the citizens of Gran have paid the taxes demanded.

The London Daily News carried a report in its edition from its Hungarian Correspondent, dated , that included the following background about the tax resistance situation:

When the Emperor Francis Joseph… consented to the restoration of municipal self-government in Hungary… the German ministers, though unacquainted with the working of constitutional institutions, had still some dim idea that the levy of taxes by the municipal authorities would become difficult. They, therefore, insisted upon it that whilst the political administration was to pass into the hands of elected national authorities, the central tax-gatherers and centralised police should remain in Hungary, and continue to assess and levy the taxes as decreed by the will of the ministry. As soon, however, as the constitutional authorities were elected in Hungary they refused to give any assistance to the tax-gatherers, maintaining that the right to vote taxes belongs exclusively to the Diet, and that a constitutional law of Hungary clearly forbids to pay any taxes not voted by the Diet under the penalty of treason. The taxes were now generally refused, first in Hungary, then in Croatia, and the tax-gatherers and centralised police, not supported by the municipal authorities in their conflicts with the tax-refusing population, soon found that their occupation was gone. Since , no taxes were paid, and the Minister of Finance became greatly embarrassed; whilst, on the other side, some of the imperial tax-gatherers and central policemen (gens-d’armes), who displayed too much zeal, were imprisoned and tried by the municipal authorities for assault and battery. … Under such circumstances the Chevalier Schmerling and M. Plener, irritated by the passive resistance of the Hungarians, issued the order of military distraint for the taxes in arrear; at the same time the imperial tax-gatherers and gens-d’armes were exempted from under the jurisdiction of the Hungarian local authorities, and put under the military jurisdiction. The Hungarian Chancellor did not countersign these two orders, which made the deepest impression in Hungary, and at the Diet drove many adherents of the address into the camp of the revolution. The military arrived at once in about ten or twelve counties, and in the smaller centres of population. The greater towns of Pesth, Pressburg, Debreczin, Miakoloz, Ujividek, and Szegedin have not yet been disturbed; the experiment was confined to those places where the people were not likely to be able to offer resistance. The municipal officials were everywhere visited with peculiar severity. From forty to sixty soldiers were quartered in their houses, with instructions to annoy the landlords as much as possible until the arrears were paid. The natural brutality of the soldiers thus encouraged led to the most infamous results. The families were worried or expelled from their houses; the furniture wantonly destroyed; pianos were cut up for firewood, the pantries and cellars were broken open, and still the sufferers refused to pay. They offered the keys of their cash-boxes to the officers, to help themselves to the required amount, but they refused to pay of their own accord. In some places the inhabitants treated the soldiers in execution with wine, in the name of Kossuth and Garibaldi, till they got tipsy, and shouted their hurras for Kossuth and Garibaldi. Thus the people became exasperated, the military discipline is loosened, the papers give every day more atrocious reports about the exactions, and even the officers of the Austrian army get ashamed of the infamous part assigned to them; whilst the result from the financial point of view is most insignificant, and does not answer the expectations of Messrs. Schmerling and Plener. We hear that the treasury is nearly empty, the thirty million florins (three millions sterling) borrowed lately without the authorisation of the Imperial Council have already been spent, and that by a new loan of eight millions becomes indispensable for carrying on the administration.

The Spectator adds:

The taxes are still collected by bands of soldiers, but the Emperor is exceedingly unwilling to resume a military occupation, which must destroy the las vestige of credit, and make every movement in Italy a serious danger to the empire. His Majesty has, however, sanctioned the prosecution of five hundred town councillors of Pesth, on a charge of high treason, for signing a circular animadverting on the levy of taxes by force.

This anecdote comes from the Spectator:

Already, the nobles resist the military collection of taxes. One, a cousin of the Chancellor Baron Vay, hearing that the imperial troops were about to be quartered on his estate to compel him to pay his taxes, removed his family, drove off his sheep, and burnt his chateau to the ground. Another received four hundred soldiers, and entertained them so sumptuously that, as he said, they were certain to be mutinous ever after. All who can bear the expense of the soldiers’ provisions adhere to their resolution not to pay.

Another article in the same issue summarizes the situation:

There is nothing for it but passive resistance, a calm steady refusal to do anything not enforced by military violence. This, it is said, is the Hungarian resolve. The Diet will sit passively till forcibly dissolved. The county committees will continue their protests till the members are driven out of their halls. The conscripts will be only sent when seized, and the taxes only paid in presence of military compulsion. Hungary will wait, and her waiting implies the paralysis of the Austrian empire. A kingdom full of men whose hate has risen to the Italian point, will need an army for its garrison, and another to put down local outbreaks. Taxes steadily refused cost more to collect than they are worth, and the Austrian treasury is in no position to wait till a more complaisant temper has returned. Day by day incessant outrage will deepen the popular hatred, and incessant resistance weaken the Imperial authority, until at last, at the first external shock, the Austrian Government will find that in Hungary, as in Italy, it has not a subject who is not an open foe.

The Spectator said that “Only four villages have yielded to the military pressure placed upon them for the collection of taxes… [The Austrian] Government, however, proclaims officially that it has money enough for the year, and that considerable sums are coming in even from Hungary.”

A Reuter’s dispatch from Vienna, carried in another issue of the Spectator read:

An ordinance from the Minister of Finance orders that, at present and during harvest-time, those Hungarian taxpayers who are really indigent are to be treated with indulgence, but that the most energetic measures of severity are to be employed against those solvent persons who refuse to pay the taxes.

The Spectator reported on the official reply of the Hungarian parliament to Austria’s rejection of its autonomy. In part, the Hungarians declared that “we cannot recognize as binding any state burden or obligation founded by the Reichsrath [Austrian parliament], any loan contracted by its authority, or the sale of any royal demesne sanctioned by it.” Furthermore:

We declare, finally, that we are compelled to regard the present administration of the country, especially the despotic conduct of unconstitutional officials, as illegal, and subject to punishment according to the laws of the country; and the direct and indirect taxes imposed in violation of the law, and levied by military force, as unconstitutional.

A report in the Spectator reported that the Pestle County Committee dissolved itself:

The taxes are collected by military force, the soldiers, for instance, cutting off the nose of a forester in the employ of Count Carolyi, who refused to pay, but no other function of Government is performed.… The people, nevertheless, are as undaunted as ever, the electors have received their representatives with applause, and the taxes are not paid till the soldiers become unendurable.

All of this fuss, and the Austro-Prussian War eventually culminated in the Composition of which gave Hungary more independent sovereignty.

That didn’t end the tensions between Austria and Hungary, though. Here is a similar example of Hungarian tax resistance from , as written by Bela Szekely for the Boston Evening Transcript of :

have seen only the growing of the popular demand for the granting of the national concessions. In Szegedin, the second largest city in Hungary, it came to a bloody conflict between the populace and the military. Patriotic women adorned with wreaths the statue of Louis Kossuth, the hero of the Hungarian Revolution in 1849. Students from various universities and academies of the country, walking to Szegedin in pious pilgrimage to the bronze image of the great apostle of liberty, were greeted on their way by immense enthusiastic crowds. The Independence party held meetings all over the country, inciting the populace into hatred against Austria. Parliament having not yet voted the budget for the current year, the city councils throughout Hungary resolved with unanimity not to accept even voluntary payment of the State taxes. As the government had merely existed for the past ten months on the surplus money of the treasury and the voluntary payments of the State tax, this step of the municipalities involved the danger of bringing to a standstill the whole of the State machinery.

And more of a similar nature is found in this dispatch from Vienna found in The Philadelphia Record of :

Among the measures which the Hungarians declare they will employ in defense of their constitutional rights are the refusal to pay taxes, which cannot be legally collected before the House of Deputies passes the budget; the refusal to grant recruits and the refusal by Hungary of its pro rata contribution to the common expenses of the dual monarchy.

The Spectator chimed in again, in its issue:

Affairs in Austria are not going well. The Emperor, finding it impossible to form a strictly Parliamentary Ministry which will protect the unity of the Imperial Army, has appointed Baron Fejervary Premier in Hungary, in the hope that ordinary business at least may be carried on. On the Chambers reassembling, however, on , a vote of No Confidence moved by M. Kossuth was carried in the Lower House by a two-thirds majority. A Royal Rescript proroguing Parliament was then read; but the President permitted debate upon the Rescript, and Baron Banffy submitted a Motion declaring the prorogation illegal because no business had been done, forbidding the payment of the quota for Imperial expenses, and summoning the counties and communes to pay no taxes and collect no recruits. This Motion also was carried by a two-thirds majority amid shouts of “Long live Norway!” [Norway had gained its independence from Sweden ]

World War Ⅰ both overshadowed the Hungarian nationalist movement and accomplished its goal, by fatally weakening the Austro-Hungarian Empire and permitting Hungary to escape its hold.