Józef Bem: a national hero for Poles and Hungarians

Józef Bem is one of those historical figures who have contributed to the strengthening of traditionally friendly relations between Hungary and Poland. He is still considered a national hero by both Poles and Hungarians. General Bem indeed played a key role in the context of the national uprisings in Central Europe (and the Balkans) in the 19th century.


At the beginning of the 19th century, the trained engineer Józef Bem enlisted in the mounted artillery of the Duchy of Warsaw and took part, within the Grande Armée, in the Russian campaign of 1812. He was awarded the Legion of Honor for his courage and dedication during the siege of Gdansk.

In 1815 he returned to the army of the Kingdom of Poland as an artillery officer. Under the orders of Pierre Charles Bontemps, of whom he was Aide-de-camp, he gave lessons at the School of Artillery in Warsaw and was promoted to captain in 1819. His outspokenness then caused him a whole series of problems and he ended up by resigning.

Today, Bem is best known for the key role he played in the central European geopolitical upheavals of the mid-19th century. In the early 1830s, he distinguished himself by his military engagement against the Russian Empire.

In September 1831, however, his streak of victories came to an end and Russia crushed the rebellion and instituted a policy of severe repression against any initiative to liberate Poland from the grip of Tsar Nicholas I. In March 1832, Bem goes to Paris where he finds hundreds of exiled Polish insurgents.

In 1835, he created the Polytechnic Society there, with the aim of supporting technical education. From the first year of activity, the Society sent more than 80 people to schools. At the time, the National School of Bridges and Roads and the prestigious School of Mines were also very popular with Polish students.

Over the next decade, Bem made a series of trips to Western Europe, from Portugal to the Netherlands, via Spain and Belgium. There he studied different branches of science and geography and learned to know different cultures.

During the Springtime of the Peoples of 1848, Józef Bem was given high command in Transylvania. Once again he demonstrates his leadership skills by setting up an army of 10,000 men. Leading the Hungarian troops, Bem captured the towns of Kronstadt and Hermannstadt, pushing Austrian and Russian forces back into Wallachia.

However, as the conflict between insurgent forces and the occupiers evolves, Bem’s army begins to encounter difficulties. It suffered a bitter defeat on July 31, 1849 during the Battle of Segesvár (Sighișoara) before taking part in the Battle of Temesvár (Timișoara) a few days later, alongside the forces of the mythical Lajos Kossuth. This last confrontation will also end in failure.

In the summer of 1849, Józef Bem was already considered a national hero both by his Polish compatriots and by the Magyar neighbors. His tactical abilities, which enabled him to drive the Austrians out of Transylvania on several occasions, made him famous all over the continent.

However, its turbulent history continues for a few more months, and this, in a way that is, to say the least, original. Indeed, after the fall of the revolution in mid-August 1849, Bem fled towards Turkey. He joined the Sultan’s army there, converted to Islam before taking the title of Pasha under the name of Murat. In 1850, in Aleppo, he crushed the Arab uprising against the Christians at the head of the Turkish troops. The defense of Aleppo made Józef Bem famous in Turkey as well.

In November 1850, Józef Bem was stricken with malaria. This serious illness cost him his life on December 10 of that same year. He is then buried in the Muslim cemetery of Aleppo (in Syria today).

In 1928, the Polish government began efforts to repatriate his remains. A year later, the body of Józef Bem was exhumed and brought back to his country of origin. On the way to Poland, his remains passed through the streets of Budapest, where the Hungarian people paid him an extraordinary tribute. The general’s ashes are now in the Tarnów mausoleum in southern Poland.

This article has been sponsored by the Wacław Felczak Institute of Polish-Hungarian Cooperation.


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