The Balance-sheet of War

The killing had lasted close to fifteen years, yet the balance of military force remained in equilibrium. The more astute of contemporary observers soon drew a fundamental conclusion: the Ottoman empire was past the peak of its expansionist powers. The earlier defeats suffered by the Ottomans might be attributed to the deleterious effect of a long period of peace on their mighty war machine, but their subsequent impotence testified to a more deeply-rooted decline. Their expansionary drive weakened as its geographic scope grew wider; with Don Juan of Austria's victory at Lepanto in 1571, the Christian fleets restored a certain military balance. The Ottoman system thrived on steady expansion, and the signs of weakness were not a temporary phenomenon but the beginning of a long decline. At the time, however, the Habsburgs lacked the strength to take advantage of their opponents' greater vulnerability.

The lessons for Transylvania's future were evoked in István Bocskai's last will and testament:

{1-765.} 'I invite my beloved subjects in Transylvania and in Hungary to come to an amicable agreement. Those in Transylvania must nurture a filial attachment to Hungary even if they come under the rule of a non-Hungarian sovereign. As for the people of Hungary, I entreat them not to alienate the Transylvanians but to consider the latter their blood brothers.

As long as the Germans, a more powerful nation, have possession of the Hungarian Crown, and the Hungarian Kingdom is dependent on them, it will remain necessary and useful to have a Hungarian prince in Transylvania, for he may be able to offer help and protection to those in Hungary. And if, by the grace of God, the Hungarians should regain their Crown, the Transylvanians must not oppose them and break away but offer them assistance and, as in earlier times, subject themselves to the Crown.'[17]17. Magyar történelmi szöveggyűjtemény (Collection of Texts on Hungarian History), ed. by Gy. Ember, L. Makkai, and T. Wittmann (Budapest, 1968), Vol. I, p. 372.

Bocskai thus set down the essential preconditions for the survival of the Transylvanian state, but the basic idea dated back to the era of the Szapolyai dynasty.

The political situation was clearly affected by the decline of Turkish power. In contrast to the declaration made by the feudal estates in the similar circumstances of 1556, Bocskai referred only indirectly to the influence of the Sublime Porte — a change that reflected the secondary role played by Turkish military force in the restoration of the principality. Indeed, the Ottomans themselves doubted whether they could have taken such a step without Bocskai's initiative. Transylvania's slow drift into subjection to the Ottomans in the 1570s was halted by its 'revolt'. Much as in 1551–56, the pashas were compelled to recognize that Transylvania was not Wallachia or Moldavia, and that they would incur great risks if they put too much pressure on the Transylvanians, for the latter were attached to statehood and preserved a Western orientation.

Now more than ever, the reestablishment of the principality was of crucial importance for all Hungarians. The Habsburgs compensated for their relative impotence by imposing arbitrary and unjust measures, and they persisted in waging a fruitless war. These actions imperilled the privileges of feudal society, freedom of worship, and the material survival of a victimized peasantry.

Back in the mid-1500s, the Hungarian ruling elite's instinct for self-preservation drove it to create the Transylvanian state. Now, similarly, it was the Hungarian aristocrats of the region east of the Tisza who revived what many had come to believe was a moribund country. Only later did the Transylvanians themselves join in the process, and necessity played some part in their choice. There were, to be sure, differences of scale and emphasis, but the essence remained unaltered: if Hungarians wanted to avoid becoming the pawns of two contending great powers and seeing their society perish, they had to preserve their odd little state at the eastern edge of the Carpathian Basin. An appalling price was paid in life and property before everyone realized that the earlier balance would have to survive in scarcely altered form.

Transylvania, too, suffered heavily on the way to rediscovering its destiny. Although the region came under direct attack only some six years after the outbreak of war, the damage was extensive. By the time the assorted soldiery — Ottomans, Cossacks, Tartars, Serbs, Romanians, Germans, Walloons, Hungarian frontier-guards and hajdús — reached the principality, the horrors of war had stripped them of much of their humanity. They were paid less, and less regularly, than in their earlier campaigns. The rampaging soldiers took a terrible toll on the population, as did the plague, famine, and the slavehunts conducted by the Tartars. The consequences are illustrated by demographic data for some districts of Doboka and Belső-Szolnok counties. In the mid-1500s, the population included 17,500 Hungarians, 13,200 Romanians and 2,000 Saxons. By the fourth (but not the last) year of the war, in 1603, the {1-767.} number of Hungarians had fallen to 2,500 people, of Saxons to 250, and of Romanians to 7,200. Thus the losses were in the proportion of 85 percent for the Hungarians, 88 percent for the Saxons, and 45 percent for the Romanians!

Of course, these statistics cannot be simply extrapolated to cover the entire region; nor is it clear what proportion of the losses is accounted for by temporary escape, migration, and extermination. The figures do reveal that the ancient settlements of Hungarians and Saxons in the valleys suffered much more from the war than did the Romanians' highland villages, which benefited from remoteness and the proximity of forests where people could hide. Thus the war brought about a change in the ethnic balance. For one thing, while Hungarians and Saxons were being decimated, the immigration of Romanians continued unabated. Confronted with Michael the Brave's prohibition of movement, and then with the restoration of Turkish rule, many of Wallachia's peasants fled to the comparative safety of Transylvania. Some of the deserted villages were repopulated by Romanians. Despite the dearth of statistical data, it is clear that the Hungarian-Székely ethnic group's numerical superiority over the others was reduced.

The immigrants' more primitive farming techniques contributed to a certain regression in Transylvania's agriculture. The war-damaged Saxon and Hungarian villages concentrated their remaining energies on the task of reconstruction, and not on passing on knowhow to the new settlers. The result was a revival of shepherding, sheep-breeding, and simpler forms of cultivation. Since the profitability of estates depended largely on the level of agricultural productivity, the changes had a negative impact on Transylvania's economy. Manpower became even scarcer, for the more mobile Romanian peasants could not be readily tied down to a place of work.

The war had two further negative effects on the economy. One was the huge expense of the endless warfare. As long as {1-768.} Transylvania enjoyed a semblance of internal peace, its rulers tried to maximise their revenues from normal sources. The taxation of villeins grew steadily heavier. Before the war, the average tax per household was 3 forints; the tax rose to around 5 forints in 1595–97, 6 forints in 1598, and 12-16 forints in 1599, during the reign of voivode Michael; in 1600, it stood at 9, and in 1601 at 8 forints. These oppressive levels of taxation only aggravated the impoverishment of the peasantry, to the point that in 1603, the revenues extracted from the villeins of the seven counties added up to no more than 3100 forints.

When this source began to dry up, Transylvania's government tried to compensate by raising more revenue from the towns. The 'loans' extracted by Voivode Michael have already been noted. What followed was even worse, and a Saxon observer's report, dating from 1604, is illuminating:

'On 21 January, Gáspár Gert and his detachment of some 55 Walloons took up quarters in Segesvár. They stayed there until August, and, in that brief period, 32,000 forints had to be spent to cover their maintenance. The quartering of Captain Salamon and his troops cost the village of Báld 31,141 forints. Kézd had to disburse 38,561 forints for Ferenc Hersel and his men. Our own municipality had to spend 15,766 forints on the French blue troops.'[18]18. Erdély öröksége III (The Heritage of Transylvania), (n.p, n.d), p. 82.

These vast sums far surpassed the amount needed for the mercenaries' wages; officers and ordinary soldiers were all intent on lining their pockets, and no one dared to refuse their demands. There were reports that over the brief period of Giorgio Basta's rule, Brassó and its district had to pay him over 350,000 forints. Rumours — probably exaggerated — had it that when the general departed, his private booty amounted to two tons of gold and silver.

{1-769.} Even before these events, Transylvania suffered from a shortage of cash. Much of what was paid to the soldiery left the country, as did the booty amassed by the voivode Michael and General Basta. Thus the country's modest assets were depleted not only by the wrecking of agriculture but also by the extensive pillage.

The Székelys' revolt and the reprisals taken by the voivode Michael as well as by Giorgio Basta took a heavy toll of the Hungarian nobility in Transylvania. From 1594 on, successive waves of executions decimated the political elite. The Székely problem, always latent, was allowed to erupt. And, as power passed from hand to hand, the system of crown domains that had been painstakingly erected by the princes fell to pieces, completing the process of disintegration. By the time Basta came on the scene, only eight of these fiscal domains remained, at Lugos, Jenő, Déva, Fogaras, Gyulafehérvár, Lippa, Karánsebes, and Szamosújvár; and the last three were close to worthless, in part because they served as frontier forts, but mainly because their agriculture had been destroyed. (Karánsebes, for instance, was left with only two villages.)

Bocskai managed to restore the province to statehood, and his rule was acknowledged even by the Saxons, but Transylvania's economy, social structure, and interethnic relations had been profoundly altered. The country was poorer and more vulnerable than at any time since the establishment of the first principality. Bocskai was a tough soldier, and his military achievements earned him both respect and fear. If fate had granted him time, he might have been able to pull Transylvania out of the coma induced by the bloodletting. In the event, the great prince survived his crowning achievement, the two peace treaties, by only a few months. He died at Kassa on 29 December 1606, at the age of 49. Grieving hajdús reacted by slaying the chancellor, Mihály Káthay, whom they suspected of having poisoned their leader. And Transylvania was left to search for a new sovereign.