The sun came out yesterday and I spent a goodly amount of time enjoying the fresh air in downtown Unicorn City, taking in the sights and chatting with a few people. Right now Cluj is in the middle of its TIFF film festival and it seems like both visitors and locals alike are having a good time.

450px-Bem_József-emléktáblaBut as I sat there on the bench, I spied a small plaque high above the bicyclists and families strolling the streets below. It was written in Hungarian, a language I don’t understand, but from the date of December 25, 1848 I knew what it was all about. And it made me realize once again how strange is the Narrative of history which led us all to where we are today.

March 15 is Hungary’s national day (equivalent to December 1 in Romania) but few non-Hungarians know that this date was chosen precisely because of what happened on March 15 in that fateful year of 1848. In fact, if you speak English, it’s likely that the year 1848 means very little to you because the wave of revolutions that swept through Europe did not really touch Britain and had almost no impact in the United States.

But here on the continent, the year 1848 was one of great change – revolutions and uprisings from Paris to Vienna, Rome to Copenhagen and yes, even in Budapest. You can click on the link above for more information from Wikipedia but today I want to focus on exactly how that plaque got mounted on a building in downtown Cluj, commemorating the deeds of a Polish man on a Christmas day all those years ago.

The origins and foundations of the revolutions of 1848 are the stuff of lengthy books but what’s relevant for us today is that Hungarian nationalists met in Pest (Budapest was at that time two separate cities, Buda and Pest) and presented a list of 12 demands to the government of the Austrian empire (ruled by Ferdinand I) as Hungary was then a subject nation of the Hapsburg Empire.

The last demand in that list of 12 (which included some noble ideas, such as freedom of the press) was “unification”, meaning the unification of Hungary and Transylvania, including Koloszvar, the very city from which I am writing this article. While the Hungarians had local control over the administration of Transylvania, the region was essentially autonomous due to internal political reasons (such as the German Saxon merchants as well as the Szekely, a sort of separate kind of Hungarians).

Initially weakened by other revolts inside its empire (including in its own capital of Vienna), the Empire at first partially acceded to the Hungarian’s demands but by the end of the year 1848 there was an active war between (mostly) Hungarian irregulars and Imperial forces. This is where Joseph Bem comes into play, or “Bem Jozsef” as the Hungarians refer to him, a Polish man who once was a member of Napoleon’s army.

By 1848, for a variety of reasons that had to do with supporting Polish independence, he had sided with the Hungarian rebels and due to his military skills and fame (several poems were written about his actions during the Battle of Ostrolenka) he became the supreme commander of the Hungarian forces. In a series of feints, guerrilla strikes and strategic attacks (which you can read about in detail here) Bem and his Hungarian forces defeated a vastly superior Imperial army.

Probably the high point of his success (from the Hungarian point of view) was the recapture (or liberation) of Koloszvar (now Cluj-Napoca) from Austrian Imperial forces on Christmas Day in 1848, which is why there is a plaque commemorating this event mounted on a prominent downtown building even to this day.

Petofi Sandor, Hungary’s most famous poet (equivalent to Mihai Eminescu in Romania), was a soldier fighting in Bem’s army and wrote one of his most famous poems “The Transylvanian Army” (Az erdely hadsereg) about that fateful year of 1848:

Why should we not win? We’re led by Bem,
The old champion of freedom!
The bloody star of Ostrolenka
Leads us with its avenging brightness.

It must have been quite a joyous moment for the Hungarians on that Christmas Day in 1848, thinking that their revolutionary goals were in their grasp, the Imperial troops routed and full independence (and unification with Transylvania) in sight.

But that was not to be the case. The Russian Emperor, known as Czar Nicholas of the Romanov dynasty, weighed in on the side of the Austrian Empire and by early 1849 Russian troops were pouring over the border (of Transylvania) and within a few short months the entire Hungarian revolution collapsed. Bem was injured and nearly killed and ultimately had to flee to Ottoman Empire territory (nowadays Bulgaria).

The Hungarian independence movement was quashed and a few years later a “compromise” was reached in which the Hungarian royal family was given joint rule of the Austrian Hapsburg Empire, thus leading to the creation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

It was this Austro-Hungarian Empire that allied itself with Germany and the Ottoman Empire some 50 years later in what came to be known as World War 1, a war which the Central Powers lost and as a result were forced to pay tremendous reparation costs (the Treaty of Versailles, which greatly angered a young and injured soldier named Adolf Hitler) as well as partitioning their lands into several constituencies, including the Treaty of Trianon, which gave Transylvania independence and the opportunity to unite with Wallachia and Moldova, creating the first Romanian state (that resembles what we have here today).

Furthermore, during the revolutionary fever of 1848 and the attempt by Hungarian nationalists to achieve independence from the empire, a young German journalist was watching the events unfold with great interest. Writing an article for the Neue Rheinsiche Zeitung (link goes to English translation), he greatly admired the Hungarians and what they had achieved.

That young journalist’s name was Karl Marx, who had just authored a small pamphlet in the summer of 1848 entitled the Communist Manifesto. Fifty years later, Lenin and Trotsky would lead a revolution in Russia to overthrow the old Romanov dynasty and found the first Communist nation. And it would be 50 years after that when Soviet troops would arrive in Romania and return Transylvania back to Romanian control (after Nazi Germany had “awarded” it to Hungary).

Furthermore, the Revolutions of 1848 (including ironically the Hungarian one) had inspired the Romanian people to rise up against their overlords, siding with the Saxons and Austrian Imperial forces in Transylvania and to fight against the Russians in Moldova. This led to a flourishing of Romanian culture and nationalism, inspiring the works of Mihail Kogalniceanu and the adoption of the tricolor Romanian (and Moldovan) flag that is still in use today.

And as the fighting raged through that fateful year of 1848, a young man living in Brasov named Andrei Muresanu was inspired to write a song called Desteapta-te, romane, which 140 years later would be sung by the people of Romania as they overthrew the Communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, the song which is now the national hymn of Romania.


As the Gypsies around here say, roata schimba soarta, the “wheel of fate keeps on turning”, and a series of interconnected events that happened long before our births determine so much of our lives here today.

And now you know why a small plaque written in Hungarian commemorating the actions of a Polish man’s fight against some Austrians is mounted on a downtown building in Romania in a city now holding an international film festival with all movies being subtitled in English on a quiet Monday afternoon in the little town that this American calls home.

16 thoughts on “Szabadság

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