Hungary History Napoleon battle of Raab
The army of the Hungarian nobles fought bravely but were defeated. Photo: Wiki Commons

Bonaparte Napoleon was born 250 years ago to the house of a lawyer in Corsica but became the emperor of France and conquered every country between Great-Britain and Russia. In 1809, he offered freedom for Hungary, but instead of accepting it, the Hungarian nobles decided to fight for their Habsburg king, Francis I. Answer on the why question below.

Because the decision is rather strange, taking into consideration the fact that, by then, the Hungarians already fought two bloody wars for their freedom against their Habsburg rulers. István Bocskai took up arms to protect the freedom of religion in 1604 while Francis II Rákóczi fought between 1703 and 1711 for the freedom of Hungary.

In 1740, the Prussian king, Frederick the Great offered alliance for the Hungarian nobles when he attacked Silesia, but they refused to accept it and chose to fight for Maria Theresa instead, saving the throne of the Habsburgs.

In May 1809,

Napoleon was preparing to fight the deciding battle against the Fifth Coalition

against France, after he captured Vienna. Napoleon issued an announcement from the Palace of Schönbrunn in which he offered independence for Hungary and the freedom to choose a new ruler instead of having one from the Habsburg family. The French emperor was thinking about destroying and dividing the Habsburg Empire even though Talleyrand warned him that the balance of power requires it because of the growing influence of Russia in the region.

The Hungarian nobles received the message, but instead of accepting it they decided to go to war against France and announced the so-called insurrection. This was an ancient element of the Hungarian feudal (legal) system in which

all nobles had to take up arms

if the country was in danger in return for tax exemption. Since the French troops were approaching the borders, it was time.

Such forces along with the regular Hungarian and Austrian troops were placed under the command of Archduke John who intended to cross to the north bank of the Danube and move northwest through Bratislava (Pozsony) to unite with the main army commanded by his brother, Archduke Charles, Generalissimo of the Austrian armies. Napoleon ordered Eugène de Beauharnais, his stepson, to pursue and destroy John’s army. The Franco-Italian troops caught up with John’s forces in mid-June and forced him to give battle near Győr (Raab).

The French forces not only outnumbered the troops of the Archduke but they were also

better trained and equipped.

Both the Habsburgs and the Hungarian reform movement said later that the Hungarian noble troops were cowards on the battlefield. One of the greatest Hungarian poets, Sándor Petőfi, wrote even a poem about the “shameful decampment” of the Hungarian insurgents. However, even the French leaders acknowledged that all Hungarian troops fought bravely, but their poor and outdated equipment was not enough against the biggest and most modern army of the time. Petőfi and his friends fighting against the (otherwise clearly outdated) Hungarian feudal system found important allies in the Habsburg government which tried to shuffle off responsibility for the lost battle; thus, they both said that the Hungarian nobles lost the battle.

However, this was not true at all; in fact, it was commander Archduke John who gave some wrong orders. Furthermore, thanks to the self-sacrificing Hungarian hussars, the Austrian and the Hungarian lines did not break up, and the troops could retreat in good order. The French victory prevented Archduke John to arrive on the battlefield of Wagram in time which, among other reasons, resulted in the catastrophic defeat of the Habsburg army. Wagram was followed by peace negotiations during which Napoleon himself visited Győr and spent there one night. Nevertheless, the Treaty of Vienna was signed in October, and the Habsburg Empire survived though it lost many territories including Croatia and Dalmatia, the former belonging to the Hungarian Holy Crown.

And finally:

why did the Hungarian reject Napoleon’s offer?

Historians agree that there were many reasons behind the decision, but probably the most important one was that they did not risk to replace the “good old” Habsburgs with some Napoleon-favoured ruler who would grant their constitutional rights on paper, but nobody knew what would later do.

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