The rising star of Istvan Szechenyi
Lajos, Franciska, Zsofia, Pal, and Istvan spent their childhoods going back and forth between Vienna and their father’s estate at Nagycenk. However, events rapidly caught up with Istvan’s childhood, and as he progressed towards his teenage years, the Holy Roman Empire declared war on the new French Republic in outrage over the death of Marie Antoinette. This turned into a full war against the French Empire under Napoleon I Bonaparte, which raged through much of his teenage years.
Naturally, Istvan entered the service in defense of the Austrian Empire, entering military service in 1809. Despite a wartime career, though, he didn’t progress very far, and by 1825, five years after his father’s death and a year after his mother’s, he had managed only to reach the rank of first lieutenant. However, it was that year that Istvan had pledged in front of parliament the full annual income of his part of his family’s estate to the creation of a National Academy of Science for Hungary. This marked his entry into national politics and branded him as a reformer, or more accurately, a modernizer, giving him a reputation that became something of an object of obsessive pride for him.
A year after his pledge, Istvan left the military service, and in 1827, being the only member of his family not yet married, he put time into his newly formed political forum for progressive patriotic Hungarians called the Nemzeti Kaszino, building support behind his ideas for modernizing Hungary. Here he developed his thoughts on what the future of Hungary should be, among them the idea that the country should gradually modernize economically, socially, and culturally, allowing it to find its place in the modern world without endangering the multi-ethnic kingdom, specifically by provoking other ethnic nationalists lurking in the background as an unfortunate reaction to Hungarian national pride.
However, he had no sympathy for those of Hungarian nobility who sought to retain their feudal privileges, including those that protecting the lords of estates from taxation. He published works to this effect in 1830 (“Hitel”, or “Credit”), 1831 (“Vilag” or “Light”), and 1833 (“Stadium”), while beginning on a new project to develop safer river travel along the lower Danube, between Pest and Turkish Wallachian ports. It was during this period that the Szechenyi name became known in Constantinople, while Istvan served as both commissioner for the river regulation project and as a sort of unofficial ambassador for Hungary to the Ottoman Empire.
During this period, Istvan also began looking at ways of uniting Buda and Pest into a new great capital of Hungary. Within those two cities, his main initiative was the construction of the first permanent bridge across the river since the days of the Roman Empire. Today, the Szechenyi Chain Bridge (or Lanchid), serves as a monument to what eventually became the symbol of a united Budapest by the latter half of the 19th century.
Catching up to family
In 1818, while still serving in the Austrian army, Istvan, age 26, had first met Maria Crescentia Caroline Maximiliana von Seilern und Aspang, the 18-year-old daughter of Karl von Seilern und Aspang and Maximiliana von Wurmbrand-Stuppach from Brunn (present Brno, Slovakia), whom he fell in love with. However, she was also courted by another much older man named Karoly Zichy (21 years her senior, and already two times a widower), with whom she married on Aug. 3, 1819.
That this gave time for Istvan to pursue his path to greatness was probably only a small consolation to him at that time. Certainly, the pressure to marry must have been building as both his older brothers not only married, but had become widowers and remarried. Finally, in 1834, Crescentia likewise became a widow (with seven children), which gave Istvan a second chance to win her heart. Just after his two nieces Alojzia and Julia, children of his eldest brother Lajos, married in their mid-20s, Istvan finally married Crescentia (or Crescence) von Seilern-Aspang on Feb. 4, 1836, in Buda.
The first happy occasion of the birth of a child came for Istvan and Crescentia about a year later, when on Feb. 7, 1837, Bela Istvan Maria Szechenyi was born in Pest. Two years later, his work on the lower Danube River over, Istvan and his family had relocated to Pressburg (present Bratislava), where he and his wife had the second happy occasion of a successful birth, that of Odon Gyorgy Istvan Karoly Szechnyi on Dec. 14, 1839.
Five years after the birth of Odon, and three years after the birth of his elder brother Pal’s youngest daughter, Crescentia gave birth one last time to a girl named Julia on Jan. 15, 1844. Unfortunately, the little girl didn’t fare so well in the birth, and she died just after two weeks on Jan. 31. No doubt the loss of his little girl was a major contributor to his deteriorating sense of mental security, more commonly attributed to Hungary and the Austrian Empire falling into a growing state of disorder.
Descending into madness
Istvan, of course, put all his emotional energy into work that supported the empire. Unlike the firebrand Lajos Kossuth, he saw Hungary’s fortunes tied to that of Vienna, and acted accordingly. Kossuth, meanwhile, predicted, as Szechenyi celebrated the successful creation of the dual monarchy, that Hungary was tying itself to a falling star, and that it would be punished by the new Balkan states accordingly. Although his particular brand of politics was perhaps too radical for the good of Hungary, on this prediction, it turned out he would be correct following the Treaty of Trianon.
Part of the problem rested in the alliance of reactionaries that came into being with the support of Russian Tsar Nikolay I, who saw moves such as the emancipation of serfs in Hungary in 1848 as being bad trends. Indeed, in former estates such as Gadany, owned by his brother Pal at emancipation, the period was noteworthy for its chaos. Everyone started with their own share of divided estates, but soon after, only a few families held most of the land.
A state of semi-feudalism had more or less been restored before too long as Prince Felix von Schwarzenberg dies in 1852, and the reactionary Minister of Interior Alexander von Bach becomes the new political leader of the Empire. Soon after he removed the freedom of the press and right to public trials from the policies of the Austrian government, the Bachsches System is described as one composed of four armies: a standing army of soldiers, a sitting army of office holders, a kneeling army of priests, and a fawning army of sneaks.
Under Schwarzenberg, Szechenyi had served as the Imperial Minister of Transportation and Social Affairs, but with the new reactionary government, the embattled progressive had a nervous breakdown. His doctor ordered him to rest at the asylum in the town of Dobling bei Wien. With the help of his wife Crescentia, he recovered a bit, enough that he could start publishing again, perhaps enough to feel useful for just a bit longer.
However, this feeling wasn’t forever. No, forever would come in the form of a bullet. Istvan Szechenyi shot himself on Apr. 8, 1860. The loss, of course, was devastating to his family, but so too was the loss felt by the rest of Hungary. Before too long, he was being touted as the Greatest Hungarian, even by some of his political rivals.