On July 28, 1849, the First National Assembly of Hungary voted to bestow civil and political equality on the country’s Jews. Unfortunately, it was a measure that remained in effect for a mere two weeks, when it was superseded by the re-imposition of Austrian imperial rule in Hungary.
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Emancipation was on the public agenda in Hungary, as it was across much of Europe, all through the 1840s. Although there was a fair amount of sympathy for the idea of equality for the Jews among the various national elites, there was also a general sense that emancipation for the Jews must be accompanied by reform within Jewish society.
This included proposals that would have eliminated the practice of ritual circumcision and the laws of kashrut, which were hardly practices that had unanimous Jewish support.
Significant, if short-lived, concessions
Hungary in the 1840s was part of the Hapsburg empire, which had its capital in Vienna.
The measure of 1849 took place within the context of a broader revolution initiated the year before – and a wave of similar independence movements throughout the continent.
In Hungary, rebels did briefly succeed in wresting significant civil concessions from the Habsburg monarchy – including political independence for Hungary and the extension of rights and privileges beyond the country’s nobility.
But these initial advances by the revolution led to a backlash in the Viennese court. In December 1848, Emperor Ferdinand was forced to abdicate, and was replaced by his nephew Franz-Joseph I.
The Capitulaton of the Hungarian army at Világos, 1849. Painting by István Szkicsák-Klinovszky (1820-circa 1880, Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Franz-Joseph cancelled the concessions made by his predecessor, and began to organize a military force to restore imperial control over Hungary.
The Russian czar, fearing the implications of the winds of autonomy that were blowing through the lands to his west, contributed a vast supporting force that more than doubled the number of troops available to the Austrians.
Thus, by July 28, 1849, the handwriting was on the wall for the independence movement. The assembly that passed the emancipation law was a rump parliament comprised mainly of radical deputies, who were more than ready to make a gesture of gratitude from the Hungarian independence forces to the Jews for their support of the revolution.
The law, which declared itself applicable to anyone in Hungary “professing the religion of Moses,” guaranteed them “all those political and civil rights enjoyed by anyone professing any other faith.” As part of the process, the Jews were expected to convene a meeting of their religious and lay leaders to produce a “confession of faith” – a written outline of their creed -- and a process of religious reform that would bring them into step with the larger society.
Instead, the Hungarians surrendered on August 13, 1849, and a period of brutal reimposition of imperial rule ensued. The Austrians were vengeful, going so far as to put revolutionary leaders before firing squads. Thousands of their lower-ranking subordinates were imprisoned.
The Austrian authorities also recognized the role played by the Jews in the revolution, and were resolved to punish them for that support. This was accomplished mainly by the imposition of a war tax of 2,300,000 guilders on the community at large, an amount that was later reduced to 1,000,000 guilders.
Some years later, in 1856, however, the emperor agreed to have the war tax collected from the Jews directed into a Jewish school fund. As a result, an impressive network of schools was established for the Jewish community, and the adoption of a regime of compulsory secular education.
By 1867, Hungary became a semi-autonomous state within the Hapsburg empire, and its Jews were once again emancipated, by way of the Equal Rights for Jews Bill. They were given rights equivalent “to those of the Christian inhabitants, as far as political and civil rights are concerned.” That was followed, in 1895, by the Law of Reception, which recognized Judaism as a “received” religion, meaning that it was now protected by the state, and that individuals could marry and convert into and out of it.