October 12, 2023

“I Will Die the Way I lived” – The Tragedy of István Tisza

István Tisza as a young man at Oxford.

The caliber of men who lead European nations and other countries around the world has fallen since the end of World War One. There are no more men like Tisza in politics today. Democracies, revolutionary states, and constitutional republics have not produced great statesmen, diplomats, warriors, and political leaders because you can't be a creature of popular opinion, a fanatical ideology, or political lobbying and be great.


Count István Imre Lajos Pál Tisza de Borosjenő et Szeged (archaically English: Stephen Emery Louis Paul Tisza, in short Stephen Tisza; 22 April 1861 – 31 October 1918) was a Hungarian politician, prime minister, political scientist, international lawyer, macroeconomist, member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and champion duelist. The outbreak of World War One defined his second term as prime minister. He was assassinated by leftist revolutionaries on 31 October 1918 during the Aster Revolution, the day Hungary declared its independence, dissolving the Dual Monarchy or Austro-Hungarian Empire. Tisza was the most zealous adherent of the Dual Monarchy (the partnership with Austria) among the Hungarian political leaders and pleaded for consensus between liberals and conservatives.

. . .In international relations, Tisza's role model was Otto von Bismarck. In domestic affairs, he followed the English historical school of economics and was heavily influenced by the social and political development of England, which he considered the best way forward for Hungary.

. . .Tisza was a "champion duellist" who "had fought more duels than any man in Europe and had never once been seriously wounded". Having been taught by "the best masters in Germany, France and Italy", he was equally adept with sword or pistol, despite (by 1913) having had a cataract operation on one of his eyes and wearing "think horn-rimmed spectacles". In January 1913, he fought Mihály Károlyi in a 34-bout duel with cavalry sabres which lasted an hour until Tisza cut Károlyi's arm and the seconds ended the duel. A week later he fought Aladár Széchenyi, again with sabres - the duel lasted one bout, ending with Tisza wounding Széchenyi with "a long cut across the head". On about 20 August 1913, Tisza fought György Pallavacini (son-in-law and supporter of Opposition leader Gyula Andrássy) at a Budapest fencing school in a duel with "heavy cavalry sabres" and "only slight protection of the body was allowed". After nine bouts, both duellists were bleeding from cuts to their foreheads, and the seconds declared both principals unable to continue - "[t]he two men shook hands, then embraced, kissing each other on both cheeks, and declared themselves reconciled."

An excerpt from Luigi Albertini's 1942 book, "The Origins of the War of 1914" (Pg. 126 - 128):

This is the moment to give a rapid sketch of the man who opposed Berchtold’s intention and greatly outweighed him in authority, will power, and strength of character, the commanding figure of Stefan Tisza. The son of Koloman Tisza, leader of the Liberal party and Prime Minister of Hungary from 1875 to 1890, he had been greatly helped in his political career by his father’s position. But he had also undergone a sound training which included university studies at Berlin and Heidelberg. This was at the time when Bismarck was at the height of his glory and the young Tisza learnt to admire the Iron Chancellor to whose achievements he devoted the only book he ever wrote (Von Sadowa bis Sedan).

There was a saying that all the Tiszas-had three ruling passions: the Bible , politics and horses. Stefan Tisza was nicknamed the "Bible man’. His strict Calvinism revealed itself in his regard for principle, his sense of duty and his complete straightforwardness. As a human being he was devoid of charm but he had a compelling personality. ‘After Bismarck’—writes one of his biographers— no one ever produced a deeper impression on those who surrounded him.’ He was a harsh, forceful character, as hard with himself as he was with others. One day some members of his party complained of his neglecting them. His answer was ‘What would become of me if I had to be considerate even to my friends?’  Adhering to his father’s policy of loyalty to the Crown and friendship with Austria, he was one of the foremost upholders of the alliance with Germany, regarding it as the only possibility of salvation for his country in the event of a European war, the danger of which he fully recognized . In his view the Dual Monarchy was a necessity for Hungary and the King was the only link holding the other nationalities of Hungary together under the Crown of St. Stephen. In return Hungary was a necessity for the Monarchy, its healthiest and most vigorous element being the Magyars, Force was the only thing he understood and admired, and he thought that Hungary should be the dominant partner in the Monarchy as being the only strong element. He regarded the army as the foundation of the state and, while a large part of the Hungarian population demanded that Magyar should be the language used In the army, he accepted the King’s point of view that there should be only one language of command and that the army should not be divided in two. A personality of this stamp could never be a popular figure. He was a King’s man who would not hear of universal suffrage on the ground that the people were not sufficiently advanced. The nationalists of Kossuth’s party demanded universal suffrage in order to impose the will of the nation on the King; Tisza on the contrary defended the Crown.

In political life he disdained cleverness, all the more because, not being gifted with eloquence, he could never hope to gain his way by the spoken appeal. He had a distaste for parliamentary tactics and preferred forceful means. Becoming Prime Minister in 1903 he tried in 1904 to break the obstructionism that was holding up parliamentary business by getting the Chamber to pass a new set of rules of procedure. The result was that the Opposition parties formed themselves into a bloc and came out victorious in the elections of 1905. After this defeat Tisza disappeared from the political scene for several years and devoted himself to managing his estate of Alsfold. But in 1912 he was chosen Speaker, and to break the resistance of the Opposition he called in the police and had the House cleared. A member then aimed three shots at him. Two men were wounded but Tisza remained uninjured and ruled that the debate should continue. But by violating the constitution and affronting his opponents he made all co-operation between the Hungarian parties impossible for the future. Thus, because Tisza had returned to power on 7 June 1913, Hungary was the only belligerent country during the war in which it was impossible to arrive at a party truce and create a national government.

War was abhorrent to Tisza both as a Magyar and as a Calvinist. The Magyar in him was opposed to the southward penetration of the Monarchy and the absorption of more Slavs as jeopardizing the dualist system and Hungarian predominance. The Calvinist in him revealed itself in a letter of 26 August 1914 to his young niece Margarete Zeik:

War, even if victorious, is terrible. For my soul every war means misery, anguish, devastation, the shedding of innocent blood, the suffering of innocent women and children. 

After the Peace of Bucharest he drew up a memorandum on 11 March 1914, defining his ideas on the policy to be pursued in order to maintain peace in the new conditions created by the Balkan wars. It was adopted in its entirety by Berchtold and formed the basis of a document which was ready for dispatch to the Kaiser as early as 24 June. Tisza’s opinion was that in the Balkans the Monarchy’s main aim should be to preserve peace while losing no time in creating conditions in its own favour. The Archduke’s death did not alter these views, and therefore, when Tisza learnt of Berchtold’s intentions to go to war, he told him frankly that he would regard a war against Serbia as a fatal mistake’. 

Video Title: “I Will Die the Way I lived” – The Tragedy of István Tisza. Source: Országház Filmműhely. Date Published: January 29, 2020. Description:

Documentary about Hungarian prime minister István Tisza, assassinated 100 years ago “These days it is commonly said about me that I am unaffected by the opinions my fellow countrymen have of me. Why is that? I will tell you the reason: it is because I have been consistently keeping to the path that is neither one of fashionable slogans, nor of popular trends. I say that those who wish to recruit followers by way of incitement and flattery decry their fellow citizens and themselves. I am proud of the qualities I inherited from my father.” /Toast held by István Tisza, 20 May 1910/ The Hungarian state apparatus ground to a halt at the end of October 1918; in those days politics was made on the front and on the streets. The Great War ended and István Tisza, Hungary’s prime minister during WWI, was declared to be the scapegoat for the defeat. He was murdered on 31 October in his villa on Hermina Road under circumstances unclear to this day. His story is only known to few even though he was Hungary’s most significant and most disputed political leader at the dawn of the 20 th century. Who was István Tisza exactly? What reasons led to his terrible tragedy?