The The Failure of Neoabsolutism

Austria Table of Contents

Initially, the new Austrian government apparently intended to implement the constitutional political structures promised in March 1849. But on December 31, 1851, Franz Joseph formally revoked the constitution, leaving in place only those provisions that established the equality of citizens before the law and the emancipation of the peasants. Popular representation was eliminated from all government institutions. In order to solidify a political base supporting neoabsolutist rule, the government also eliminated the Josephist religious regulations that had been the source of continuing conflict with the church. In 1855 the government signed a concordat with the Vatican that recognized the institutional church as an autonomous and active participant in public life. The agreement signaled a new era of cooperation between throne and altar.

Neoabsolutism, with its aim of creating a unified, supranational state, however, ran counter to the prevailing European trend. The empire's peoples could not be isolated from the larger nationalist struggles of the German, Italian, and Slavic peoples. In Hungary active resistance to the Austrian government declined, but passive resistance grew. During the Crimean War (1853-56), the situation in Hungary made Austria vulnerable to economic and political pressure from Britain and France, the allies of Turkey against Russia. Thus, when Russia asked for Austria's support, Austria initially sought to mediate the conflict but then joined the western allies against Russia. By failing to repay Russia for its help in Hungary in 1849, Austria lost critical Russian support for its position in Germany and Italy.

France took advantage of the estrangement between Austria and Russia to set up a military confrontation between Austrian and Italian nationalist forces. This opened the door to French military intervention in support of the Italians in 1859. Because Franz Joseph was unwilling to make the concessions that were Prussia's price for assistance from the German Confederation and because he feared the French might stir up trouble in Hungary, Franz Joseph surrendered Lombardy in July 1859.

These failures did not bode well for the anticipated conflict with Prussia over German unification, so the emperor began to abandon absolutism and create a more viable political base. He experimented with various arrangements designed to attract the support of the military, the Roman Catholic Church, German liberals, Hungarians, Slavs, and Jews, who were assuming a strong presence in the economic and political life of the empire. Urgently needing to resolve the tensions with the Hungarians, the government opened secret negotiations with them in 1862. The outline of a dual monarchy was already taking shape by 1865, but negotiations were deadlocked on the eve of the war with Prussia.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress