Sigmund Freud wrote it to his friend, Ferenczi Sándor:
“I have never been a firm believer in the ancien régime, but I wonder whether it is a sign of political wisdom that the smartest of the many counts (i.e. Tisza István) is murdered and the dumbest (Károlyi Mihály) becomes prime minister.”
Count Tisza István, the former Prime Minister was assassinated in his villa on Hermina Road in Budapest. He was blamed for dragging Hungary into the war, but this was not true: we now know that he was the only leader in the Monarchy who did his best to prevent war, he was the last to give in to pressure from the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph.
Tisza was attacked in his home by uniformed assassins who accused him of being responsible for the horrors of World War I. Two years later, a death sentence was announced for what the prosecution described as “murder for hire”.
After resigning as prime minister in 1917, Tisza went to the front as commander of the Debrecen Hussar Regiment, an unusual move for a leading politician. The war ended in 1918 with the entry of the United States, and in October of that year Tisza declared in a speech to Parliament that “this war was lost”.
On 28 October the Autumn Rose Revolution broke out, and three days later, at dawn on 31 October, Archduke Joseph entrusted Károlyi Mihály with the formation of a government on behalf of King Charles IV.
In the afternoon of that day in Budapest, two military trucks pulled out of the narrow street behind the Astoria Hotel onto Hermina Street. Tisza István, his wife and niece lived in the villa at 35 Hermina Road.
They occupied the ground floor of the villa, while the first floor was occupied by the builder of the house, Róheim Samu, who lived there with his family, hence the name Róheim Villa. Tisza was considered by many at the time to be one of the main scapegoats of the war – sadly, some still think so today – and he received numerous death threats in the months before his death.
Numerous friends and acquaintances, including his niece Almásy Denise, begged Tisza not to stay in Budapest, and to leave the villa, but the former prime minister was adamant. All he said was that if they were looking for him, they would find him here. It would not be the first time he had faced death, said Tisza, who had already been tried to be killed three times.
Just two weeks earlier, for example, Lékai János had tried to shoot him, but the gun had misfired. Lékai was taken to the round-up prison, where he was released during the Károlyi mob’s reign of power, known as the Autumn Rose Revolution, on the very day Tisza was killed. What a coincidence.
A year earlier, in 1917, Duczynska Ilona and Szabó Ervin, the then director of the capital’s library network, plotted to kill Tisza István. Their inspiration came from the successful assassination attempt on Austrian Prime Minister Karl von Stürgkh six months earlier. Szabó Ervin wanted to pull the trigger himself, as he was terminally ill and had no fear of punishment.
But he was blind in one eye because of his severe diabetes, so it was safer if he didn’t do it. Duczynska wanted to carry out the assassination on 23 May, but Tisza “prevented” it by resigning as prime minister the same day. Incidentally, when Tisza heard that his Austrian colleague had been shot, he said that they both expected to be killed, but he thought he would be the first.
Let me make two remarks: the Central Library of Budapest (and a network of libraries) still bears the name of the communist Szabó Ervin. My other remark is about Károlyi Mihály, the “Red Count”.
The duel between Tisza and Károlyi
Károlyi Mihály, a lifelong Communist sympathizer, found New Year’s Eve of 1913 an appropriate time to insult Prime Minister Tisza István at the National Casino. First, he demonstratively refused to accept Tisza’s greeting, and then he got into an argument with him. Károlyi’s provocative behavior led Tisza, in accordance with the gentlemanly custom of the time, to settle the insult with a duel.
Károlyi was a bitter political opponent of Tisza, who was far more committed to his nation than he was. His boorish behavior led to his name being linked with that of his prime minister in a well-publicized duel. They were both good fencers and agreed to a sword duel.
The extremely long (fifty-five minutes) bout in the hall of the fencing master Rákossy Gyula on the second of January ended in the thirty-second round after the wounded Károlyi was declared unfit to fight. Although Tisza, who was an excellent fencer, kept the fight under control, as did his government and the opposition, and skilfully fended off the renewed attacks of Károlyi, who was in a fit of rage, one can only wonder how Hungary’s modern history would have turned out if one of the parties had suffered an injury that would have prevented him from continuing his political and public career.
Although Károlyi was a skilled swordsman, his political views and decisions – especially when he came to power – caused great damage to the nation. This damage was linked to the fact that the Red Count was at war with honor, decency, and traditional moral values. A glaring manifestation of his lack of character was his ‘generous’ handling of his party’s coffers.
From some of the testimonies given at the court-martial for the murder of Tisza István, which took place between 2 August and 15 September 1920, it is clear that Károlyi irregularly transferred huge sums of money to people who had paid irregularly for various services, including the murder of Count Tisza István.
In 1923, in his absence, Károlyi Mihály was convicted of treason by a Hungarian court and deprived of his property. He now has a statue in Budapest.
The last day of Tisza István
Let’s go back to that sad day a hundred years ago. It was about five o’clock in the afternoon when the assassins entered the villa, four or five of them. “We are looking for Count Tisza István!” Tisza greeted them with a revolver in his right hand, but he did not use it, placing it on the small table next to him or, according to other sources, on the mantelpiece of the fireplace. Next to Tisza stood his wife and niece.
The assassins, pointing their guns at Tisza, ordered the women to move away from the count. “You are the cause of the war! You are responsible for everything!” they shouted. Tisza, to protect the women and himself, attacked one of the assassins and during the scuffle, the fatal shots were fired. One bullet hit him under the right armpit, another in the abdomen.
The eternal question for Hungarians who think in terms of the nation remains: what would have happened if Tisza had not been killed and had been at the helm of the country in the sad times to come?