Whose sad eyes gaze at you from the 5000-forint banknote? Whose idea was it to connect Buda and Pest by a chain bridge and merge the twin cities? Whose idea was it to set up an Academy of Sciences to safeguard the Hungarian language and cultivate young minds because –as he said – only an educated nation can create prosperity. Thus he became the forerunner of what in EU jargon we call a knowledge-based society.
István Széchenyi was born in 1791 into one of the most respected Hungarian aristocratic families. The Széchenyis excelled in their devotion to the advancement of the country; out of their ranks there was even an archbishop, or just take Ferenc Széchenyi, his father, who founded the National Museum in 1823.
With this background he was destined to serve the country to his best. However, the path to deserving the epithet the ‘greatest Hungarian’ which Lajos Kossuth, his ardent political opponent, stuck on him in 1830 in a speech to the deputies, was long and tedious.
His reputation as a fearless hussar cavalry officer was established in the Napoleonic wars and he lived the life of a celebrated hero, the favourite of Viennese salons, a boozer and seducer of young hearts. His unbridled temperament and passionate character is to be blamed for his falling in love with his elder bother’s wife. The breakdown he suffered due to her unexpected death in 1820 diverted him to another great passion: assuming leadership in modernizing his homeland.
After 17 years of military career he submitted to his father’s will and entered the political arena. His debut occurred in 1825 at the Reform Diet in Pozsony (Bratislava today) where he shocked his audience by speaking Hungarian instead of Latin, and by offering one year’s revenue from his estates to establish a scientific society (the predecessor of the Academy of Sciences) to nurture the language.
Hungary in the 1820s was an exotic land (a pretty euphemism for backwardness), as Metternich’s famous bon mot “Asia begins at the Landstrasse” described the civilizational divide between Austria and Hungary. The crème de la crème of the Hungarian aristocracy spent most of its time and money in Vienna while the rest of the country lived in a dumb feudal idyll. However, the early nineteenth century saw the first signs of national awakening culminating in what later was called the Reform Era, including legislative reforms and language reform to make the Hungarian language apt for science and modernity.
This was the point where Széchenyi broke in, stirring up the lukewarm complacency of his countrymen. Driven by the vision of emancipating Hungarians to a European level, he advocated economic renewal by implementing technological innovations like railways, steam navigation, modern estate management, horse-breeding, etc. He travelled widely all over Europe but wherever he went was a study tour for him. With a keen eye he picked the thing that could be beneficial for his country. A good example of this attitude was his visit to France for the coronation of Charles X where instead of the ceremonies the Canal du Midi grabbed his attention , an idea which he later utilised for the regulation of the two main rivers of Hungary, the Danube and the Tisza.
His missionary zeal made him confront all those who opposed his reforms. His provocative though epoch making book Hitel (Credit), in which he formulated his vision for the modernization of the country, divided the ruling class and alienated the Habsburgs – who saw only the rebel in him, as –again – Metternich told him in a private audience: “You are the greatest threat to the Monarchy.”
The 1830s were his most prosperous years, when he was adored by the public, succeeding in carrying out grandiose projects like making the Danube navigable down to the Black Sea or starting his pet project, the first permanent bridge connecting Pest and Buda. His final aim was to make a unified Budapest the new Centre. It was also in this decade, in 1836, that he married the widow Countess Cresencia Seilern after eleven years of secret love.
The 1840s, however, brought his political and personal downfall. The seeds he sowed grew wild plants, to put it metaphorically. His radical rival, Lajos Kossuth, and the younger generation meant a threat to all his achievements by demanding independence ( from the Austrian point of view secession). The Revolution that broke out on March 15, 1848 and the war of independence that followed shook him so much that in September 1848 he collapsed mentally and was hospitalized in Döbling, near Vienna, where he stayed for the remaining twelve years of his life.
His tragedy can be seen as a mirror picture of the tragedy of the nation he built. He was full of self-incrimination, blaming himself for the course of events, saying “I started it.” In the asylum he regained his mental power and with his pen he continued to be a threat to the suppressing regime of Franz Joseph, whom he considered a usurper. After repeated harassment by the Austrian secret police due to his satirical pamphlet Ein Blick his shot body was found with a revolver lying on his left leg on April 8, 1860.
Very rarely in history does posterity seem to be grateful. The beautiful and prophetic words of the poet János Arany – “Never dies he who spends the fruit of his prosperous life on millions…” – proved to have come true when in the 2007 polls asking who was the greatest Hungarian people put him at number one.