They used to rush on me with stones, now with flowers- Artúr Görgei
Was he a traitor? A living martyr? A strategist? A scientist? Almost all of these. Artúr Görgei’s assessment still induces debates, but during his life, all of the above-mentioned attributes were hung on him. Although it is a fact, that Görgei – who was born 200 years ago – became famous or rather infamous due to the surrender at Világos. In our current compilation, we are searching for an answer for the question: Who was he? What motivated him in getting rid of the ‘y’ ending in his name, which indicated his noble origin? How did he live with the thought of being sentenced to life?
Artúr Görgey was born in an impoverished noble family on 30 January 1818. He studied in Késmárk and prepared for the teacher profession, but became a soldier as his father wanted. He started his career in the imperial army, which was typical in the period. In 1842, he became hussar lieutenant, but owing to his interest in natural sciences, he quit the army three years later. He studied chemistry at the University of Prague and obtained a diploma right before the crucial events of 1848. His thesis about the aliphatic acids of the coconut oil was published in two famous magazines and his scientific work put him in the history of chemistry indelibly. Inspired by that, he applied for the temporarily vacant chemistry-professor position at the Budapest University of Technology, but he did not get it. While his professor from Prague was trying to find a professorship for the lad, the revolution broke out unexpectedly in the March of 1848. Among the rushing events, he decided to bestow all his energy on protecting the homeland instead of researches. He went to Pest for the appeal of the Batthyány government and started serving in the army as a captain in June. At this time, he decided to omit the ‘y’ ending in his name, which hinted at his noble origin, and used the form ‘Görgei’ consistently after that.
Görgei had a key role in the triumph fought near Pákozd, because he and his troops hindered Jellasics in joining the forces led by Roth and Filippovics. He excelled not only in firmness but in September he arrested Ödön Zichy who spied for Jellasics and who was hanged for high treason later, as the only aristocrat during 1848-49. Görgei reached the peak of his career by June 1849, but his new attacks were not successful in lack of the promised inductees. The fate of the ebbing army was sealed by the joint offensive of Haynau’s and Prince Paskevich’s forces. After the defeat of Győr, he got a serious head injury in a battle next to Komárom, and after recovering he executed that brave manoeuvre again and managed to outfox the imperial army in the winter of 1848-49. That time, the army of Nicholas I was the ‘victim’ that tried to catch Görgei among the mountains of Upper Hungary clownishly. After the disastrous defeat of Temesvár, the last hope was lost, so Kossuth renounced and endowed Görgei with full powers. Agreeing with his generals, Görgei capitulated at Világos on 13 August. Tellingly, he did not surrender to Haynau, but to Russian Prince Paskevich, which defined his further fate: ‘he was sentenced to life’. Tsar Nicholas did not gave him into the hands of the headsman; Görgei was kept in house arrest in Klagenfurt until the Compromise (1867).
Relation with Kossuth
He managed to win Lajos Kossuth’s confidence with his air of assurance and successful military operations, thus Kossuth intended him an important role in further operations too. In the summer of 1848, Kossuth already heard of the 30-year-old captain, who developed the plan of a cartridge cap and igniter factory. He also knew that Görgei had been appointed commander of the voluntary moving militia camp on 27 August. They did not agree in several points, for example in the matter of the dethronement of the Habsburg dynasty. They were not in accordance because Kossuth often commanded in military issues as well. Their correspondence unveiled that this did not influence Görgei’s loyalty. After the capitulation, Kossuth’s letter from Vidin seems to be an ignoble assault considering the facts above. He described that Görgey’s treason caused the failure of the independence war and Görgey’s ambitious actions led Hungary into downfall. The effect of the letter was dreadful, even after decades; if Kossuth was the semigod of the nation, Görgei lived in people’s minds as a real devil.
Traitor vs. scapegoat
The most painful thing that Artúr Görgei had to bear might have been that even his fellow soldiers – the heroes of ’48 – thought that his role was ambiguous. There are many anecdotes about how he faced a lynching crowd, how they wanted to attack him on a railway station or on a reader lecture and how many times he was humiliated. Naturally, he tried clearing his role in his work ‘Gazdátlan levelek’ (masterless letters) published after returning home, but with modest success. There were some doubters as well, like the young writer Zsigmond Móricz, who interviewed the elderly Görgei and Móricz’s first article about Görgei for magazine Nyugat was born. Zsigmond Móricz was not the only person who was interested in Görgei. The general became a central figure of Gyula Illyés’s and László Németh’s historical dramas, and the plays Fáklyaláng (torch flame) and Az áruló (the traitor). People did not forget about his ninetieth birthday and greeted him with huge bunches of flowers. As Görgey remarked sarcastically ‘They used to rush on me with stones, now with flowers’. He died at the age of 98, in Pest on 21 May 1916, surviving everybody, but without having been acknowledged as one of the most excellent Hungarian strategists.
Translated by Zita Aknai