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Henry Marczali

The Letters and Journal (1848-49) of Count Charles Leiningen-Westerburg: General in the Hungarian Army


Count Charles (Karl / Károly) Leiningen-Westerburg was born in 1819. into an ancient German noble family. As many other family members he was bred and trained for a life of professional soldier. Charles was married to Erzsébet Sissányi de Törökbecse, a daughter of a Hungarian landlord, becoming himself a proprietor of the Hungarian estate near Törökbecse. In 1848. he joined the Hungarian army sent to the south of the country to deal with the uprising of the Serbian population, and when the war turned into a Hungarian revolution against Austria and Austrian imperial army (with which he previously served), he decided to stay in Hungarian army. He quickly rose up through the ranks, being promoted first to a rank of major, then lieutenant colonel, colonel and finaly a general. He was executed in 1849 along with other Hungarian leaders when the uprising was broken down.

An introduction by Henry Marczali

“The Letters and Journal (1848-49) of Count Charles Leiningen-Westerburg” were prepared and translated to English by Henry Marczali and first published in 1910. Within this publication he included a long and detailed introduction, laying the background for and retelling the events of 1848-49 Hungarian revolution, and also narrated the origin and life story of Charles Leiningen-Westerburg. The letters are mostly those written to Leiningens wife, and the journal was written during his imprisonment days before his execution, and on their own would not be enough to follow the events, so Marczali’s introduction helps to put everything in context and fill in the gaps.

As I said, Marczali provides detailed historical introduction of Hungarian revolution, as well as some insights into roots of complex relations within the Hungarian elites, Hungarian-Austrian relations and also those between Hungarians and the minorities within Hungary. In the decades after 1815 there were two major currents in the political life of Hungary - one conservative (lead by count Széchenyi), representing aristocrats, and another one more radical, representing much more numerous minor nobles, and their leader was Kossuth. Both wanted to reform Hungarian society, but differed on methods, tactics and pace:

What Széchenyi wanted was the effecting of these reforms by a gradual process, in order to avoid offending Government and Austria, and to spare the feelings of the non-Magyar nationalities, of whom there were large numbers in Hungary. These nationalities - Slovaks, Croatians, Wallachians or Roumaninas, Serbs or Rascians - were accustomed to the hegemony of the Magyars; and those of them who were nobles possessed the same rights and the same rank as the Magyar nobility. But as in the nobility the Magyar element was in the majority, and as, on the other hand, the greater part of the unprivileged classes were non-Magyars, the superiority of the Magyars ran the risk of being eclipsed by the sudden victory of democracy. Consequently the "greatest Magyar", the founder of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and the first modern writer of Magyar prose, opposed democracy and Magyarisation alike. His principle was that the Magyars should rule by the moral superiority that attracts, not by that hauteur and that material force which makes enemies. (page 19)

However, Kossuth’s current prevailed and national homogenization was pursued aggressively by imposing Hungary as official language in all public spheres of life and curtailing all local autonomies.

The Hungarian administration believed that laws of the most liberal character - abolition of tithes and feudal obligations, taxation of the nobles, suffrage with a very low standard of qualifications, introduction of the non-nobles into the county administration, in a word, universal liberty and equality - would appease the nationalities, as they - for the most part peasants and non-nobles - would profit most by these reforms. They were deceived. The Court and military interests prevailed with the Rascians, who were aided by their brethren of Servia and Montenegro; in Croatia where Jellasich persecuted the Magyar party and threw off all allegiance to Hungary; and with the Wallachians of Transylvania. Only the Ruthenians, the greater part of the Slovaks, and the Germans - except the Saxons of Transylvania - remained true to Hungary. The Ban of Croatia was at the same time commander-in-chief of the military frontier, which was inhabited by Rascians: the other Rascians were stirred up by their metropolitan. (page 24)

Serbian uprising started after Kossuth refused requests by the delegation of Serbs from southern Hungary to recognize their previous privileges (such as an autonomy in church life and preservation of language).


Rascians is an exonym used mostly by Germans and Hungarians when referring to Serbs in southern Hungary (Raška is the name of a territory in present day central Serbia from which one of the most successful Serbian medieval states originated). By 19th century, Serbs of Hungary started regarding this name insulting and a Serb delegation asked Kossuth in 1848. that their national name be used instead, which he consented. However, Marczali consistently uses the name “Rascians” throughout his introduction, written and published well into the 20th century.

The Letters and Journal (1848-49) of Count Charles Leiningen-Westerburg

The letters sketch a picture of a stiff and unlikable young carrier soldier of aristocratic origin. Born and raised in Germany, he served with the Austrian imperial army and married a daughter of a wealthy Hungarian landlord. When the political crises started in 1848, he needed to side either with Hungarian government or the Habsburg court. He claims that he was sympathethic to the Hungarian cause, but being a German landlord in southern Hungary who did not speak a word of Hungarian and additionally an officer of Austrian Imperial army, I think that his motives had more to do in proving loyalty and securing his estate.

Other then occasional “hugs and kisses”, most of those letters sent to his young wife hold very little warm or personal. They are mostly political expositions or battle briefings. After his capture he was no longer able to send letters, being well aware that he will probably be executed very soon, he spent his last days writing down accounts of his battles in his journal, concerned more about his legacy and painting a picture of himself as brave and capable soldier rather then saying last farewells to his young family and accounting for leaving them and wasting his life for a cause that was not really his.

He received a decent education, no doubt, but I think he could not be called enlightened, either in his views on politics or assessments of people of other class and ethnicity then his (especially non-Hungarians). His often fostered double standards, for example, being a passionate German nationalist, he advocated that all foreigners should leave Germany and never rule it again, and expressed his delight about Germans winning against Danes. However, in the very same letter (dated May 1st, page 86), when commenting the Serbian uprising he says: “In Torontal and Bacska the Illyrian mischief has begun”.

Also when talking about the unruly and undisciplined Serbian irregulars (mostly consisting of peasants) he dismisses them as cowardly, but later he admires equally unruly, undisciplined and cowardly Hungarian irregulars.

He was a witness to the civil war and many atrocities committed by both sides. He did not take part in them, in fact he sometimes disapproved of them, and sometimes he accepted those committed by Hungarian troops, though with regret, as necessary and understandable retributions. My impression is that he never did enough to prevent them, even when he was in position to do so, especially at the later stages of war when he became a senior officer.

Solving the social problem by the extermination or deportation of surplus population:

Now for the constitution, which will undoubtedly be considerably benefited by the terrible outbreak of Communism in Paris and the successful overthrow of the same. Yet it is awful to think that there is after all no other way of solving this social problem than by the extermination or deportation of our surplus population. (page 89)

Talking about the aftermath of the battle of Becse:

However, the fury of the Magyars after the fight was terrible, though it may be excused in the light of treachery of the Rascians of Becse. For several hours there was an end to all discipline; and then ensued horrible butchery. Poldi puts the number of those massacred at 250-300. It was awful to think of! That is what I call a real war of extermination. Through the intervention of Eszterhazy considerable reinforcements are being sent there; the posse comitatus is also being reorganized, but I doubt if there will be any chance of preventing the latter from perpetrating awful cruelties. The grater part of Kikinda has been destroyed by fire; Mokrin too has been burned out. The lovely Banat is now a mere wilderness. (page 94-95)

Butchering of Serbian civilian population that was supportive of their troops in the war zone can be excused, but later, when the war moved north into central Hungary and the battles were fought between Hungarian and Austrian armies, he admired the local Hungarian civilians who supported their troops.

Every day, several carts full of Rascians (mostly women and children) approach our outposts; and the miserable wretches beg and pray to be taken prisoners, as to stay in the Rascian camp means starvation. Pale, reduced to mere skeletons, they ask the soldiers for a bit of bread, which they devour like so many ravenous wolves. The military commanders offer these poor fugitives refuge; but the civil authorities would exterminate them if they could. Innumerable Rascians have been hanged; three were executed to-day. It is no business of mine to inquire whether this is the best mode of subjugating them; for my part, the very sight of such measures is revolting.
If all those who are bad Hungarians were to come here, they too would very soon become enraged with the abominable wretches who consider this war of extermination a suitable means to attain their objects. Look at the smoking ruins of the Banat, listen in dismay to the lamentations of homeless, starving women and children, feast your eyes on the uncultivated fields and the unburied corpses, and then ask yourselves whether a man of honour, seeing all these horrors, could preserve in his heart one spark of loyal attachment to a dynasty which bands with incendiaries and thieves? For, on my honour I tell you these men have not been driven into fighting by their "nationalist" feelings. (page 105-106)


On the way here I met with 200 Rascian prisoners and several hundred head of horned cattle, which had been driven out of the enemy's camp. The prisoners declared that they would rather be in captivity with us than at liberty in their own camp, where the privations have already become unbearable. The miserable state of these poor devils is beyond description; they have been enticed to abandon their property and are now dying of starvation. In rags, pale and emaciated, they toiled on, an eternal disgrace to those who provoked this war — the most horrible that ever was. All the terrors of this awful civil war have now been complemented by a fresh scourge — cholera, which is claiming more victims than the war itself, particularly among the Rascians. (page 106-107)

About capture and burning down of Modos (Jaša Tomić):

I pushed forward with the skirmishers into the village; and my only regret was that I did not meet with a more obstinate resistance. Then began work which filled me with disgust. In a few moments the village was in flames at various points; and the men started pillaging and committed various other offences. We had the greatest difficulty in getting the flames under. Yet these villainous Wallachians deserved the punishment they got, for they are daily threatening to murder the poor Hungarians who live among them. (page 112)

He witnessed “cruelty and rapaciousness” of soldiers subordinate to him, got disgusted and had no other choice then to look the other way:

Karlsdorf, as the key of the whole position, was held by the enemy's best troops, a battalion of borderers, who, with the militia (posse comitatus) supporting them, offered a stubborn defence. Seven of their officers and three hundred of the rank and file fell, while our casualties amounted to not more than ten killed and twenty-five wounded. In one single courtyard my men cut down thirty-five privates and one officer, giving no quarter. This encounter will always be a horrible nightmare for me; though my soldiers fought right bravely, in particular the first company, which at Tomasovacz had behaved so shamefully — their cruelty and rapaciousness disgusted me. No trace of magnanimity or chivalry, either in the officers or the rank and file. In a word, I had to look on while the most horrible butchery was being perpetrated, and could do nothing to prevent it. (page 141)

After Alibunar was captured, it was pillaged and burned down by the scattered troops. While looking at the flames from nearby he fealt some perverse admiration. A scene almost straight from Coppola’s “Apocalypse now”:

In a few hours we succeeded in getting the troops together again; and we bivouacked in the open. I shall never forget that night. Imagine to yourself a broad camp stretching along both sides of the high road, which was occupied by the cavalry and artillery, surrounded by camp fires; in the distance the burning village of Alibunar illuminated the countryside far and wide — it was terrible, but superb! Then the lively bustle in the camp — singing and dancing were going on in a hundred places at once! (page 143)


There was another scene, however, which filled me with sorrow: I was obliged to confess that the fanaticism of these Serbs (Rascians) is quite blind, and that there is little chance of a peaceful agreement between them and the Hungarians. Our hussars captured a peasant who had fired on them from a house. He was brought before Damjanich, who asked him whether he desired to exterminate the Hungarians unaided. " Not unaided," was his defiant answer, " but with the help of my brothers." " I shall have you shot." " You may, if you like." Thereupon Damjanich gave orders that he should be shot. Of the three clumsy " honveds " detailed for the purpose, two failed to hit and the other's gun missed fire. Then the man turned round and, thinking the whole affair was merely meant to scare him, asked the officer standing near him, " Was it enough ? ' The officer replied in the negative ; the prisoner then turned round again, and died with a terrible curse upon the Hungarians on his lips. I am sorry to say the officer acted as executioner. Generally speaking, the Serbs (Rascians) are cowards; but they are endowed with a peculiar obstinacy that good leadership might easily convert into the greatest courage. (page 145-146)

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