Enlightened Reform or National Reform?
The Continuity Debate about the Hungarian Reform Era and the Example of the Two Széchenyis (1790–1848)1
This paper returns to the problem of how to interpret the Reform Era, a constant issue of Hungarian historiography since the 1840s. While most master narratives continue, even today, to repeat that it actually began in 1830, there are compelling arguments that in fact the reform programs of the 1830s were deeply rooted in the earlier movements of the 1790s, or even in Joseph II’s reforms of the 1780s.
The paper offers an overview of some of the latest trends in the research of the problem (in the writings of Károly Kecskeméti and Gábor Vermes, viewed from the perspective of Ambrus Miskolczy), as well as a reconstruction of the ways in which contemporaries saw the issue during the Reform Era. In the second part, it compares two important aristocratic protagonists of the age, father and son, Counts Ferenc Széchényi and István Széchenyi.2 It will show that there are indeed close links between these two people, including their plans for reform and their anglophile political attitudes. As both of them played major roles in their own time and were often regarded as heroes by members of their respective societies, if the link between them is strong enough, their example can presumably be used as an argument for the continuity thesis between the two reform generations of the period, and thereby for an interpretation of the Reform Era in the context of the late Enlightenment.
Keywords: continuity, Hungarian Reform Era, historiography, István Széchenyi, Ferenc Széchényi, Enlightenment, liberalism