Istvan Szechenyi, the “Greatest Hungarian”

Count Istvan Szechenyi


Count István Széchenyi is widely acknowledged as the most eminent figure in Hungarian history. His significant contributions as a statesman played a pivotal role in shaping the modern landscape of Hungary. Alongside Lajos Kossuth, Ferenc Deák, and Ferenc Wesselényi, he was one of the prominent intellectuals during the Hungarian Reform Age. The Szechenyi Chain Bridge stands as the biggest symbol of this era.

Revered as the “Greatest Hungarian,” Szechenyi’s influence echoes through the corridors of time. His contributions are varied, extensive, and significant. Moreover, his life was not about personal glory. It was about making a difference. It was about shaping a nation.

Széchenyi’s immense and unprecedented life work holds significant value for future generations. His deep love for his country, unwavering belief in progress, sacrifices, determination, and practical endeavors established him as one of the most influential figures in Hungarian history.


Young Szechenyi

Portrait of young Istvan Szechenyi

A visionary

Seeing the economic and cultural disparities between Hungary and other nations, Széchenyi recognized the need to introduce efficient public institutions that had already proven successful abroad. Therefore, in 1822, he brought horse races to Pest, drawing inspiration from the English model, and went on to establish the First Horse Breeding Association in 1825. Additionally, he generously donated funds and laid the foundations for the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Following the example of the British, Széchenyi established the National Casino in Pest in 1827 as a social hub for the Hungarian aristocracy. In his influential work “Credit,” published in 1830, he summarized his vision for the economic and social transformation of Hungary. Széchenyi played a crucial role in the establishment of the Commercial Bank and took on the responsibility of overseeing the ambitious project to regulate the Lower Danube as a royal commissioner. He also spearheaded the Tisza regulation projects, introduced steam navigation on Lake Balaton, and notably contributed to the construction of the Szechenyi Chain Bridge in the 1840s.


Szechenyi introduced horse racing in Hungary

The first horse races in Budapest

Family influence

István Széchenyi was born in Vienna on September 21, 1791. He belonged to the esteemed Széchenyi family, which held significant influence within the Hungarian nobility. His father, Ferenc Széchenyi, was a prominent statesman, and his mother, Julianna Festetics, came from another notable noble family.

Széchenyi received an exceptional education, studying in various European cities and acquiring fluency in multiple languages. His exposure to diverse cultures, societies, and intellectual movements broadened his perspective and had a profound impact on his future endeavors.

During his early years, Istvan displayed a wide range of interests. From politics to the arts, sports to literature, he possessed an insatiable curiosity that drove him to seek knowledge in various fields. These diverse interests greatly influenced his future pursuits.

The influence of his family was profound. Guided by his father’s statesmanship and his mother’s nobility, Istvan developed a deep sense of responsibility towards society. This influence ultimately steered him towards a path of progress and a desire to make a positive impact.


Szechenyi offering a yearly income to build a Science Academy

Szechenyi offers a yearly income to build a Science Academy


Having extensively traveled throughout Western Europe, the count witnessed the contrasting characteristics of countries such as France, England, and Hungary. Recognizing the importance of economic development, Széchenyi promoted various reforms to stimulate industry, trade, and agriculture. His efforts laid the groundwork for Hungary’s economic growth and prosperity, setting an example for future generations. The initial step in this endeavor involved establishing a horse racing event and a club.

Subsequently, in 1825, the count generously offered his annual income (approximately 60,000 forints) during the Hungarian diet to fund the construction of a Science Academy. Inspired by the count’s gesture, other members of the aristocracy also contributed substantial sums. Six years later, the society commenced its operations, culminating in the construction of the magnificent Neorenaissance palace that stands proudly at Széchenyi Square in Budapest.

In 1827, Széchenyi proposed the creation of a National Casino that would serve as a hub for economic and political discussions. Initially, the casino boasted a membership of 45 individuals, which grew to several hundred by the end of the century. Among its prestigious members were Rudolf, the crown prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Albert Edward, Prince of Wales.

Pioneer in modern transportation

Szechenyi emerged as a pioneer in modern transportation, revolutionizing water travel through the introduction of steamboats. This innovation not only empowered the nation with an efficient and cost-effective mode of transportation but also brought about a significant transformation in the realm of waterways.

Recognizing the immense importance of waterways and their potential to boost the nation’s economy and connectivity, the count dedicated himself to improving river navigation. This endeavor not only facilitated trade but also stimulated economic growth, leaving a lasting impact on the nation’s prosperity.

However, Istvan’s visionary aspirations extended beyond water travel. He possessed a keen understanding of the potential held by railways and took pioneering steps towards their development. The crowning achievement of his efforts was the construction of the iconic Szechenyi Chain Bridge, a testament to his foresight and unwavering commitment to progress.

The Szechenyi Chain Bridge


The Szechenyi Chain Bridge

The Széchenyi Chain Bridge


The Chain Bridge, commonly associated with the name Széchenyi, stands as one of the most renowned historical landmarks. Its construction commenced in 1842, with the official opening to the public taking place on November 20, 1849. The Széchenyi Chain Bridge holds great significance, symbolizing the unification of Pest, Buda, and Óbuda in 1873. It served as the sole connection between the two sides of the Hungarian capital until the completion of the Margaret Bridge between 1872 and 1876. Regrettably, Széchenyi never had the opportunity to witness the finished bridge that bore his name.

Istvan Szechenyi’s focus extended beyond mere infrastructure and development; it encompassed the well-being and advancement of individuals. His social reforms aimed to uplift the oppressed, leaving a lasting impact on social welfare and education. He championed the idea of providing education to all, regardless of their social standing, resulting in the establishment of numerous educational institutions throughout Hungary.

With a deep appreciation for arts and culture, Szechenyi held a special place in his heart for these endeavors. As a dedicated advocate, he provided unwavering support for literature and the arts, nurturing countless talented artists and writers. He took remarkable strides in promoting the rich Hungarian culture on a global scale, ensuring its presence on international platforms. Through the establishment of enduring cultural institutions, he continues to cultivate and foster the growth of arts and culture even today.

Tragic end

Széchenyi’s efforts in developing Hungary led to his nomination as the Minister of Transport during the revolution of 1848–49. However, due to his lack of radicalism and disagreement with the revolt against the Austrian Empire, he held this position for only five months. Throughout this period, Széchenyi diligently sought an entente and pursued peace with the Hapsburg Dynasty. This endeavor was driven by his personal connection to Austria through his wife, Countess Crescence Seilern, and his wish that the country modernize peacefully. Unfortunately, as time went on, Széchenyi became increasingly detached from reality, ultimately suffering a nervous breakdown. Following the events of 1849, he resided in a mental institution. Tragically, in 1860, the count took his own life.

Like any great leader, Szechenyi was not without his share of controversies and criticism. Opponents were quick to highlight his alleged shortcomings. His reforms, though progressive, were met with opposition. His political ideologies, while popular with the masses, drew criticism from conservative quarters.

The controversies surrounding his legacy cannot diminish his accomplishments. They serve as a reminder that progress often comes with opposition and that every step forward is met with resistance.


The statue of Szechenyi in front of the Academy of Science

The statue of Szechenyi in front of the Academy of Science

The legacy

Istvan Szechenyi possessed admirable character and a visionary mindset. Both his personal and public life were characterized by a strong sense of responsibility and unwavering commitment.

Deep and meaningful relationships were the cornerstone of his existence. His family provided him with strength and served as a constant source of inspiration. As a devoted husband and caring father, he embraced the importance of these bonds.

His impact extended far beyond his lifetime. His vision, ideas, and accomplishments have continued to inspire future leaders and generations to come.

He is not solely remembered for the reforms he initiated or the infrastructure he developed, but also for the ideals he exemplified. His life serves as a guiding light for progress, a symbol of unwavering dedication, and a testament to the power of perseverance.

In Hungary, Count István Széchenyi is celebrated as a national hero, and his memory is honored through statues, memorials, and institutions that bear his name. His contributions to the nation’s development and his unwavering dedication to the Hungarian people have earned him a special place in the country’s history.