Austria Table of Contents

Revolutionary Rise and Fall

In 1848 liberal and nationalist ideologies sparked revolutions across Europe. In late February, the proclamation of the revolutionary Second Republic in France shook conservative Austria. Popular expectations of war caused a financial panic in the Habsburg Empire that worked to the advantage of the revolutionaries. By early March, events throughout the empire were accelerating faster than the government could control them. As a symbol of conservative government, Metternich was an early casualty of the revolution. His resignation and flight in mid-March only led to greater demands. By mid-April the court had sanctioned sweeping liberal reforms passed by the Hungarian diet. In May the government was forced to announce plans for a popularly elected constituent assembly for the Habsburg lands. This assembly, the first parliament in Austrian history, opened in July 1848.

As part of the German Confederation, the German-speaking Habsburg lands were also caught up in the revolutionary events in Germany. German nationalists and liberals convened an assembly in Frankfurt in May 1848 that suspended the diet of the German Confederation and took tentative steps toward German unification. However, the close association of nationalism and liberalism in Germany belied the growing conflict between these two ideologies. Although ethnic Germans from Bohemia were participating in the Frankfurt assembly, Czech nationalists and liberals rejected Bohemian participation in the German nation being born in Frankfurt. They envisioned a reconstituted Habsburg Empire in which the Slavic nations of central and southern Europe would assume equality with the German and Hungarian components of the empire and avoid absorption by either Germany or Russia. The government gave concessions that appeared to endorse this plan, and the Czechs convened an Austro-Slavic congress in Prague in June as a counterpart to the Frankfurt assembly.

As conservative political authority gave way before the revolutionary forces, two bold military commanders began to reassert control over the situation, often ignoring or contravening timid orders from the court. General Alfred Windischgrätz routed the revolutionaries from Prague and Vienna and reestablished order by military force. South of the Alps, General Joseph Radetzky reestablished Austrian control of Lombardy-Venetia by August.

Although only Hungary remained in the hands of the revolutionaries, the Austrian government began to reorganize in the fall of 1848. A team of ministers associated with constitutionalism was presented to the constituent assembly in November. The minister-president not only committed the government to popular liberties and constitutional institutions but also to the unity of the empire. To cap the reorganization, the mentally incompetent Ferdinand formally abdicated on December 2, 1848, and his eighteen-year-old nephew was crowned Emperor Franz Joseph I (r. 1848-1916). The young emperor faced three pressing tasks: establishing effective political authority in the empire, crushing the rebellion in Hungary, and reasserting Austrian leadership in Germany.

To accomplish the first, the government promulgated a secretly prepared constitution in March 1849, thus undercutting the constituent assembly. This constitution contained guarantees of individual liberties and equality under the law, but its greatest significance lay in provisions that established a centralized government based on unitary political, legal, and economic institutions for the entire empire.

The new constitution exacerbated the revolutionary situation in Hungary. The Hungarian diet deposed the Habsburg Dynasty and declared Hungarian independence. Although Austria could have eventually restored order on its own, the need to deal simultaneously with events in Germany prompted Emperor Franz Joseph to ask for and get Russian military assistance, thus accomplishing his second objective. The rebellion was effectively, if brutally, ended by September 1849.

Austria's decision to organize itself as a unitary state also set the terms for dealing with the German nationalists and liberals sitting in Frankfurt: Austria would enter a unified Germany with all of its territories, not merely the German and Bohemian portions. This contradicted an earlier decision of the assembly, so the assembly turned from the grossdeutsch (large German) model of a united Germany that included Austria to the kleindeutsch (small German) model that excluded Austria. The assembly offered a hereditary crown of a united Germany to the Prussian king. The conditions under which the offer was made, however, caused the Prussian king to decline in early April 1849. Combined with the withdrawal of the Austrian representatives, his rejection effectively ended the Frankfurt assembly. The German Confederation was restored, and Franz Joseph's tasks were completed. However, Austria and Prussia continued to jockey for influence and leadership in Germany.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress