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Ferenc Deák was born a Catholic on 17 October 1803 in Söjtör, Zala County, in southwestern Hungary. Members of the medium nobility, his family owned a manor house in neighboring Kehida, where Deák later loved to stay. Having lost his father as a small child, he grew up as a ward of his brother and sister, to both of whom he remained deeply attached. He never married and nothing is known of his private life and passions. He was admired for being patient, kind, charming, witty, cultivated, and exceedingly generous, yet he suffered from bouts of deep depression, which caused him to flee public life periodically. This might explain why he was unable to match the brilliant political success of his contemporary the Hungarian patriot and statesman Lajos Kossuth, at least in revolutionary times.
Deák followed the traditional career of the wealthier rural nobility by studying and practicing law as well as by occupying varying posts in the county administration. His election to the National Diet in 1833 brought him into contact with the political greats, who were often also Hungary"s foremost poets, writers, and linguistic innovators. His specialty in those feverish times became judicial reform, indispensable if this semifeudal country was to enter the modern world. In 1842 Deák emancipated his serfs; a year later he withdrew from politics in disgust over a violent and rigged election campaign. Still, he was seen as the leading liberal, and when a bloodless revolution broke out in March 1848, he rejoined his fellow politicians at Pozsony (today Bratislava in Slovakia) where the diet was in session.
Having entered Hungary"s first modern constitutional government, appointed by the Habsburg emperor-king on 7 April, Minister of Justice Deák was greatly responsible for the redrawing of the country"s laws and for renegotiating Hungary"s relations with the dynasty. New Hungary was to be a sovereign state in personal union with the rest of the Habsburg possessions, a proposition that was only temporarily acceptable to the besieged dynasty and the new Austrian liberal government. Also, Hungary"s ethnic minorities, who together formed an absolute majority, now demanded the same political rights that Hungarians had achieved in that year. The result was civil war and, in the late fall, war between Austria and Hungary. By year"s end, Kossuth was virtual dictator and Deák had withdrawn to his estate.
The defeat of the war of independence in August 1849 caused Kossuth and thousands of others to flee abroad; more than a hundred were executed at home. Deák, however, was not prosecuted and could thus become the unofficial leader of the passive resistance against Austrian absolutism. He reentered politics in 1860 after the emperor-king Francis Joseph (r. 1848–1916) issued the so-called October Diploma, which offered limited constitutional rule to the peoples of the monarchy. Having at first insisted that Hungary be given back the constitution of April 1848, Deák now slowly moved toward a solution that would allow the foreign and the military affairs of the monarchy to be handled by common ministries. But not until after the defeat of the Austrian army by the Prussians in 1866 did the ruler come around to accepting the famous Compromise Agreement of 1867 and the creation of what came to be commonly called Austria-Hungary. In these negotiations, Deák was powerfully assisted by the empress-queen Elizabeth (r. 1854–1898), who was his admirer. The new state, which was founded on the principles of Western-style liberalism, brought emancipation to all religious groups, including the Jews. It was Deák"s crowning achievement. He declined to become prime minister and continued to live simply in a Budapest hotel.
The Compromise Agreement and the reform laws of 1868 allowed Hungary to progress economically at a phenomenal pace, but they did not solve the problem either of the landless in a country of vast aristocratic estates or that of relations with the nationalities. For the Slavs and Romanians in the monarchy, the division of powers between Austro-Germans and Hungarians seemed to be directed against them. Lajos Kossuth in exile also strongly condemned the agreement, which, in his prophetic view, tied Hungary"s fate to Austria, and through Austria to the German Reich. For others, the ruling "Deák Party" was not sufficiently nationalistic. Disillusioned by parliamentary quarrels, Deák gradually withdrew from politics, dying in Budapest on 28 January 1876. His name stands for the idea of wise compromise with superior powers, be it Germany of World War II, or the Soviet Union following the defeat of the 1956 revolution in Hungary.
See alsoAustria-Hungary; Kossuth, Lajos.
Deák, Ferenc. Deák Ferencz: beszédei. 6 vols. Edited by ManóKónyi. Budapest, 1903.
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——. Válogatott politikai írások és beszédek. Edited by András Molnár and Ágnes Deák. Budapest, 2001.