Kossuth's Memories of Exile

KOSSUTH was the most famous, and perhaps the most worthy, of those rocket-like Continental statesmen who, for a few seconds, astonished the world by their brilliancy, only to vanish as suddenly as they had appeared, leaving their countrymen, dazed and blinded by the brightness of the temporary light, to struggle out of the political slough by the aid of ordinary luminaries. It is not want of success which discredits these men, but that intense egotism which made them stick by their hobbies, however inopportune, and persist in vain and fruitless dreaming when a sinking of personal prejudices would have materially assisted the cause they had at heart. The book now published under the modest and appropriate title of Memories of my Exile1 is neither autobiography nor history, but consists of valuable materials for the historian of the Italian war of 1859, an episode of which it describes with a fullness which would be vainly sought for elsewhere. It will be remembered that after the breaking up of the revolutionary government in 1849 its head withdrew to Turkey, where he was kept two years in prison, after which he traveled extensively in England and in this country, everywhere receiving ovations, and being welcomed with an enthusiasm which now, on account of the more critical and understanding spirit with which the public views foreign politics, it would be impossible to excite. Such as it was, however, Kossuth enjoyed an immense amount of popular sympathy, of which no one, we suppose, stands in such need as a man who has failed in a great undertaking. But the years subsequently passed in exile, as we see from this volume, brought with them comparative wisdom and moderation, and, while Kossuth’s sincerity has never been questioned, such proofs as are here given of political tact and sense were urgently needed.

In the war which Austria began in 1859 to maintain its supremacy in Italy, it was obliged to depend, in a large measure, upon Hungarian troops, while the fear of a Hungarian insurrection was as effectual as another French army would have been in bringing about the peace of Villafranca. It does not appear that Napoleon III. cared anything about the Hungarian cause, but he would have been a very incapable politician if he had neglected to take advantage of the situation. Kossuth was the most suitable agent for forwarding the emperor’s plans in this direction, and the former was very willing to aid the French in Italy, provided an equivalent were rendered in Hungary. But he had good reasons for supposing that Napoleon wished to use his countrymen only as cat’s-paws, and the highest claim which he possesses upon their gratitude and the world’s respect is that he saw through and frustrated this design, and, while materially aiding the anti-Austrian cause, prevented useless shedding of Hungarian blood.

It was in May, 1859, that Kossuth was invited to come to Paris to confer with the emperor and his cousin, Prince Napoleon. If the war which was soon to begin should bring about Hungarian independence, his grateful countrymen, Kossuth assured the prince, would “ offer him the crown of St. Stephen.” But the latter, though undoubtedly a friend to the Hungarian cause, irrespective of its bearings upon the military strength of Austria, was evidently not dazzled by the prospect, and perhaps did not have so entire faith in the exile’s ability to procure his elevation as that hero himself cherished. The importance which Kossuth attributed to himself is shown by his remarks to the prince on this occasion. “ Without my coöperation,” he said to him, “ though isolated outbreaks might be attempted, it would be impossible to induce people to rise in sufficient numbers to give the movement the force of a national revolution. . . . While I live, and do not nullify myself politically or morally, the question of Hungarian independence is, and will remain, so completely identified, in the feelings of the people of Hungary, with my name and person that if, without my assent, they were called upon to take up arms, the summons would be received by the masses with hesitation and distrust. People would say, ‘ The thing is suspicious. Why does not Kossuth take part in it ? It cannot be right. Let us await what he says to it.’ ”

Kossuth demanded that the proposed insurrection should await the appearance of a French army on Hungarian soil. The emperor, however, was unwilling to promise this until he should receive satisfactory assurances of England’s neutrality. These the exile at once offered to procure him, and he kept his word. The interest in the Hungarian cause with which he inspired certain members of the so-called Manchester party brought about a coalition between them and the whigs which resulted in the defeat of the tory cabinet. This change of ministry was not destined to decide the fate of Hungary, however, as Kossuth had hoped, but it proved of immense service to the emperor, especially with reference to the cession of Savoy. As regards the Hungarians, the incident was merely another illustration of the scriptural injunction, Put not your trust in princes.

All the other plans described in the volume before us ended in failure, and this episode concerns English and French politics rather than Hungarian. From England, Kossuth went to Genoa, there to superintend the formation of a Hungarian army, composed mainly of prisoners of war. At the same time negotiations were undertaken with a view to obtain the participation in the war of the Danubian principalities, — intrigues here described with great detail, but possessing the slightest interest, because the sudden end of the war brought them to an untimely end. The newspapers of July 8th announced an armistice, which “ news struck us like a thunderbolt. Soon after, Pietri handed me an autograph letter addressed to him by the emperor. I wept like a child, and could scarcely read it. The contents of the letter were to the following effect: . . . 'Tell M. Kossuth that I am extremely sorry that the liberation of his country must now be left alone. I cannot do otherwise. But I beg him not to lose heart, but to trust to me and the future. Meanwhile, he may be assured of my friendly feelings towards him, and I beg him to dispose of me with regard to his own person and his children.’ When I came to this part of the letter, I could not control myself sufficiently to prevent my revolted feelings from venting themselves in bitter exclamation. ‘ Yes, yes ! ’ I said, ‘ such are those crowned heads ! Such is their idea of the creature that is called “ man ! ” To the wind with the fatherland ! A bag full of money to the man, and he will console himself. Senator, pray tell your master that his majesty the emperor of the French is not rich enough to offer alms to Louis Kossuth, and Louis Kossuth is not mean enough to accept them.’ ”

The peace of Villafranca, however unexpected by the Italians and Hungarians, and displeasing to them, was, as to the other combatants, dictated by every consideration of sound politics. France had fulfilled its contract with Sardinia, and was entitled to receive the stipulated reward in the cession of Savoy and Nice. It had therefore no motive for continuing the war, and excellent reasons for not doing so, being threatened by the popular movement in South Germany, and by no means ill satisfied with the limitation of Sardinian expansion to the provinces already acquired. On the other hand, it was less the defeats of Solferino and Magenta than the fear of Hungary and Prussia which forced the Austrians to give up the game. In the end, too, it happened that Italy lost nothing by the arrangement, while the delay in the granting of Hungarian independence was made to serve another good cause in 1866.

  1. Memories of my Exile. By Louis KOSSUTH. New York: D. Apppleton & Co. 1880.