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General Józef Bem: Polish and Hungarian Leader
by Peter K. Gessner

General Józef Zachariasz Bem, the "Hero of Two Countries,"- Poland and Hungary - was born in Tarnów in 1794, just one year before Poland, being partitioned between its three autocratic neighbors, Prussia, Austria, and Russia, lost its independence. Then, during Bem's teenage years, Napoleon, with the help of the Polish Legions serving under French command, defeated Austria and Prussia and created the independent Duchy of Warsaw.

As a consequence, young Józef was able, in the years 1809-1811, to study at the Duchy's School of Artillery and Engineering. In 1812, thus trained and a lieutenant, he became a member of the 100,000 strong Polish Army that joined Napoleon’s Grand Armée in its march on Russia. A string of victories enabled the combined armies to advance to Moscow and occupy it, It was the start of Józef Bem's military career. But then, Moscow burned and the fierce Russian winter and a re-energized Russian Army decimated Napoleon's forces.

The disastrous retreat from Moscow and Napoleon's subsequent defeat at Waterloo led to a redrawing of the map of Europe at the Congress of Vienna in 1915. In the process, a small vassal Kingdom of Poland, of which the Russian Tzar was king, was carved out of the much larger Polish territories under Russian occupation. For a few years, Józef Bern served in the Kingdom’s Polish Army. In 1826, however, he resigned his commission and moved to Galicia, the Austrian-occupied part of Poland, where he worked as an engineer. He remained devoted to the cause of freedom and eager to take up arms against the autocratic powers that had deprived Poland of its independence. Twice, in 1830 and again in 1848, fate presented him with the opportunity to do so, and on both occasions he gave of himself for the cause.

In 1830, on the night of November 29, the students of Kingdom's Military Academy in Warsaw, the so called Cadets' School, began an uprising the goal of which was ridding the Kingdom of its Russian suzerainty. The uprising spread and soon the Polish Army lent it its support. Józef Bem left Galicia and rejoined the Army. In the ensuing Russo-Polish War of 1831, the Army, well trained as it was, initially registered a number victories, one of these, in April 1831, at Iganie where Józef Bern commanded the artillery. Then, however, the Russian's overwhelming might led to the Poles suffering reverses, among them one at the important battle of Ostroleka where, in spite of Bem's enterprising deployment of rocket forces, the Polish Army was decisively defeated. The Poles were pushed back to Warsaw which the Russians surrounded. Bem participated in the city's defense but, when the Poles capitulated in October 1831, the, by then, Brigadier General Bem managed to elude the Russian and went into exile in France where he remained for some years, that is, until 1848.

All over continental Europe, 1848 was the year of revolutions, a series of events referred to as the Spring of Nations. It started in Paris, where the memory of the French Revolution and its unfulfilled egalitarian and liberal promise, a desire for a broadening of the ruling elites and for extension of the suffrage, all led to mass demonstrations. These, in turn, forced the abdication of the King, Louis Phillippe, and the establishment of the Second Republic. Inspired by the events in Paris, fueled by urban liberalism, romantic idealism, and nationalist fervor, revolts swept across Europe’s cities. Among the most extensive was that in Hungary, whose people sought to liberate themselves from Austria’s suzerainty.

While making his way to Hungary, to make common cause against one of the regimes responsible for Poland's subjugation, General Bem found himself on October 14, 1848, in Vienna at the very moment when the city rose in revolt against the autocratic Austrian Emperor’s rule. Bern assumed command of the insurgent forces defending the city against the Imperial Army surrounding it, and withstood their attacks until October 29, when the city was forced to capitulate. Slightly wounded, he managed to elude the Austrian troops and made it to Hungary where, on December 6, 1848, he was placed in command of the Hungarian forces in Transylvania. The forces under his command scored a string of victories against the Austrians and, by May of 1849, had also occupied the southern province of Banat. In recognition of his martial talents and bravery, he was elevated to the rank of Field-marshal.

Then, at the request of the Austrian court, the Russian Tzar sent his forces across the Carpatian Mountains. In July and August, 1849, the Hungarians, commanded by General Bem, suffered a series of defeats and on August 14, they were forced to capitulate to the Austrians. Again wounded, General Bern, together with several dozens other Polish officers who had served in Hungary with him, crossed the border into the area controlled by the Ottoman Empire. There they were interned in a camp in what is, today, Bulgaria. Austria and Russia demanded their extradition and a diplomatic confrontation resulted. However, under the international regulations then in force, extradition did not apply to individuals who converted to the Muslim faith and assumed Turkish citizenship. Several dozen Polish officers took this step, among them General Bem, who adopted the Turkish name Murat Pasha, Pasha being the highest title of military officers in the Ottoman Empire. Stationed in Aleppo, he died there on December 12, 1850, of malaria. He is interred in Tarnów, his birthplace.

Throughout Europe the autocratic regimes were able to contain and suppress the revolts of 1848-49, yet the price they paid for doing so was so high, in terms of the alienation of their subjects, that they could not countenance a replay of these events. Accordingly, in much of Europe, the Spring of Nations was followed by broadening of enfranchisement, decentralization and liberalization, processes which, eventually led to the formation of independent democratic national states, Poland and Hungary among them.

June 8, 1998