Comparing Home Rule in Hungary and the U.S. South

Comparing Home Rule in Hungary and the U.S. South

Home rule, defined as the gaining of political autonomy, is usually associated with the struggle for autonomy in Ireland. Twice defeated, the Irish Republic claimed its independence before home rule took effect.[1] While the British debated home rule in 1886 and 1893, the U.S. South was working toward its own version of what may be seen as home rule. Removing the final vestiges of Reconstruction, former slave states had assumed internal control over social, political, and racial matters by 1900, with the Supreme Court’s affirmation of separate but equal in Plessy v. Ferguson, and the virtual elimination of African American voting in the South thanks to poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses.

Where a comparison between Ireland and the U.S. South may seem fruitful, I want to instead suggest Hungary as an intriguing comparison of home rule’s implementation. In both countries, racial or ethnic groups assumed control by embracing racially or ethnically exclusionary policies. A comparison of these home rule experiences will help historians gain a better understanding of some of the racial and political problems associated with the failures of post civil war reconciliation.

Like the separatism of the southern states, Hungary had resented Austrian/Habsburg rule and had rebelled in 1848.[2] Their failure to gain their independence had placed Hungary at the mercy of the Austrians. However, Austria’s fortune declined as a result of diplomatic faux pas during the Crimean War and military setbacks against the Italian-French alliance in 1859, and again with the Prussian-Italian alliance of 1866. Nevertheless, like the former Confederate states during Congressional Reconstruction, Austria still ruled Hungary directly during the early 1860s, removing much political autonomy.[3]

Realizing the unsustainability of such direct governments, in 1864, the Austrian legislature (the Reichsrat) determined an accommodation with the Magyar (a Hungarian ethnic group) was in order, which would require major concession to the Hungarians.[4] This was a situation similar to the southern states, where the end of Reconstruction meant the slow abandonment of African Americans and the restoration of political power to white elites.

Ödön Tull’s Coronation of Emperor Franz Josef and Empress Elisabeth as King and Queen of Hungary on June 8, 1867. Courtesy of

Similar to the political compromise of 1877 in the United States, on July 18, 1866, Emperor Franz Josef invited the prominent Hungarian politician Ferenc Deák to Vienna to search for a compromise solution. The negotiations were successful and on February 17, 1867, the Hungarian parliament received permission to restore the historic Constitution of 1848, with some modifications. Hungary now had its own ministry, responsible to the Hungarian parliament.[5]

This compromise measure, called the Ausgleich, meant that henceforth Franz Josef ruled over Austria-Hungary: two states, two crowns, united in his person. Hungary contributed to the joint army and budget, but was independent in its domestic affairs. The Ausgleich was effectively an agreement between two “equal semi-sovereign states.”[6] The Austrian state had undergone dramatic constitutional revisions, similar to the United States as a result of the Reconstruction amendments and the reenvisioning of its constitutional relationship.[7]

In contrast to the U.S. South where home rule went hand in hand with the disenfranchisement of African Americans and Jim Crow segregation, Hungarians first instituted home rule and then used that newfound power to implement ethnically exclusionary policies. Hungary embarked on a policy of Magyarization by preventing non-Magyar minorities from accessing politic power. Hungary’s voting population, divided into fifty different categories and electoral districts, were gerrymandered to benefit the ruling Magyar class, very similar to the modern electoral maps of the United States. Even though less than half of Hungary’s population was Magyar, they occupied 90 percent of the parliamentary seats.[8] Gerrymandering districts to benefit ethnic or racial groups, and creating ethnic or racial categories to disenfranchise people, are tactics that were employed (and still are employed) with similar effect in the states of the former Confederacy.

However, ethnic or racial oppression did not end with disenfranchisement. The United States embraced an extensive system of racial oppression, and by the time of the Great War, Hungary had gained the reputation of being the Völkerkerker (dungeon of people) of Europe. Just like white Southerners, Magyar were under the assumption they were a “master race” superior to the backward “Slavic” people, who were mostly peasants.[9] However, there was a difference. Hungary created an environment in which people could shed their ethnic identity and take on the Magyar identity to become a full part of society. In contrast, most African Americans could not change their racial status to white. However, the principle of exclusion based on superiority racial superiority was the same.

At the same time that Jim Crow laws took effect and Southern states worked on gaining home rule,[10] the Hungarian home rule government forcefully implemented Magyarization. By 1880, Magyar instruction was compulsory. Telegraph and postal service exclusively operated using the Magyar language. The Magyar elite suppressed “any political or social movement which challenged the hegemonic position of the Magyar ruling classes.”[11] The main difference to the U.S. South was that Magyarization followed the granting of home rule rather than being part of the assumption of power.

Another point of comparison is commemorative. By the 1890s, irreconcilable Kossuthists had emerged and demanded once more the independence of Hungary.[12] The Ausgleich had been an unacceptable outcome for the old revolutionary leaders. Lajos Kossuth remained committed to independence and had not acknowledged the legitimacy of this compromise government. Just as Confederate veterans and emblems offered a rallying point for segregationists in the 1960s, Kossuth offered a symbol for those opposed to the legitimate government of Hungary and Austria.[13] Kossuth had not accepted Franz Josef as emperor, just like some Southerners never accepted defeat in the Civil War.

Funeral procession for Lajos Kossuth in Budapest, April 1, 1894, reprinted in Zeffiro Ciuffoletti, Das Reich der Habsburger 1848-1918 – Photographien aus der österreichisch-ungarischen Monarchie (Vienna, Austria: Verlag Christian Brandstätter, 2001).

Somewhat comparable to the twenty-thousand residents who wished farewell to Jefferson Davis in New Orleans five years earlier, when Kossuth died hundreds of thousands participated in funeral parades around the country, among them veterans of the 1848 struggle with their ragged battle flags.[14] Politician Julius Justh gave a powerful eulogy for Kossuth, saying “In Louis Kossuth, we mourn one of the greatest, most honorable, and most selfless figures of history. He is not only our dead, but the dead of humanity . . . for the services of Kossuth were larger, worldwide in significance, immortal.”[15] Southerners could hardly have stated the importance of their cause and leaders any better. Just like Confederate veterans who accomplished more off the battlefield and in death, so too did Kossuth achieve more in death as a symbol of resistance than he every did alive.

When the United States disintegrated into separatist rebellion, the country faced a deadly struggle that did not end in 1865. As white southerners reasserted their political, social, and economic influence, they removed protections and benefits from the African American community to create a white supremacist environment, culminating with statues to Confederates, Jim Crow segregation, and the exclusion of African Americans from the polls. By 1900, the U.S. South had gained home rule. Like the U.S. South, Hungary experienced a separatist rebellion in 1848. By 1867, Hungary gained home rule in the Ausgleich. Just like the racism permeating the Southern states, so too did the Hungarians embrace a conviction of racial superiority that lead to a vigorous Magyarization campaign. While oppression and home rule in the United States lasted until the 1960s, and arguably are still ongoing, the Great War changed everything for Hungary, though it did not end its xenophobic, supremacist attitude. A comparison of these two home rule situations illustrates the failures of post-Civil War reconciliation within the transatlantic state system.


[1] Alan O’Day, Irish Home Rule, 1867-1921 (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1998).

[2] See István Deák, The Lawful Revolution: Louis Kossuth and the Hungarians 1848-1849 (London: Phoenix Press, 2001).

[3] For more, see Gregory P. Downs, Declarations of Dependence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1861-1908 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

[4] Robert Bideleux and Ian Jeffries, A History of Eastern Europe: Crisis and Change (London: Routledge, 1998), 338.

[5] Arthur J. May, The Habsburg Monarchy: 1867-1914 (1951; New York: Norton Library, 1968), 34-35.

[6] Edward Crankshaw, The Fall of the House of Habsburg (1963; New York: Penguin, 1983), 239-240, 294.

[7] See recent Muster posts on the Fourteenth Amendment by Christopher Bonner, Andrew Diemer, Hilary Green, Aaron Astor, and Martha S. Jones; all links appear in the introduction, Martha S. Jones, “A Muster Roundtable on the Fourteenth Amendment,” Muster (blog), The Journal of the Civil War Era, July 9, 2018,

[8] Bideleux and Jeffries, History of Eastern Europe: Crisis and Change (New York: Routledge, 1998), 364-365; May, 42-43.

[9] Crankshaw, 298.

[10] See Stephanie Cole and Natalie J. Ring, eds., The Folly of Jim Crow: Rethinking the Segregated South (Arlington: University of Texas, 2012).

[11] Bideleux and Jeffries, 363, 367; May, 261-262, 374.

[12] May, 267.

[13] John M. Coski, The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006).

[14] Donald E. Collins, The Death and Resurrection of Jefferson Davis (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005).

[15] May, 346-347.

Niels Eichhorn

holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Arkansas and has taught history courses at Middle Georgia State University and Central Georgia Technical College. He has published Liberty and Slavery: European Separatists, Southern Secession, and the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2019) and Atlantic History in the Nineteenth Century: Migration, Trade, Conflict, and Ideas (Palgrave, 2019). He is currently working with Duncan Campbell on The Civil War in the Age of Nationalism. He has published articles on Civil War diplomacy in Civil War History and American Nineteenth Century History. You can find more information on his personal website, and he can be contacted at

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