The Internal Developments in Austria

Austria Table of Contents

The Czech boycott of the Austrian parliament enabled the German Austrian Liberals to dominate the government of Austria until the late 1870s. They used their position to block concessions to Czechs and Poles in the early days of the Dual Monarchy, and they further protected their interests in 1873 by altering the franchise law to increase the representation in parliament of their constituency--the urban, ethnically German population and assimilated Jews. The Liberals' legislative program focused on anticlerical measures, but conflict over foreign policy issues, not religious ones, caused the Liberals' fall from power in 1879. The Liberals opposed the annexation of Bosnia and Hercegovina--which was favored by the emperor--and claimed certain powers in the conduct of foreign policy that Franz Joseph saw as an infringement on his sovereign authority.

After the fall of the Liberals, a nonparty government known as the Iron Ring was formed under Eduard Taaffe. Intended to encircle and limit the influence of the Liberals, the Iron Ring represented court interests and enjoyed broad support from clerical parties, German Austrian conservatives, Poles, and Czech representatives, who had decided to end their boycott. Backed by this comfortable parliamentary majority, the executive branch was able to operate smoothly. Although the concessions given the Czechs in return for their support were linguistic and cultural rather than political, the concessions raised sensitive issues because the expanded use of the Czech language in Bohemian public life weighed heavily on the ethnic German minority.

The major legislative initiative of the Taaffe government was the 1883 franchise reform. This measure broadened the ocioeconomic base of the electorate and thus weakened the support of the Liberals while strengthening the conservatives. An even broader franchise reform was proposed in 1893 after the election of 1891, which had been conducted in an atmosphere of heightened ethnic tensions in Bohemia. The proposed reform would have given the vote to all male citizens over the age of twenty-five and thus diluted still further the middle-class urban vote that the court associated with fervid nationalism. The bill, however, was widely rejected by the conservative backers of the Iron Ring, and Taaffe resigned.

Ethnic tensions, however, did not subside, even though a modified version of the franchise legislation proposed in 1893 was ultimately enacted. With the parliament highly fragmented both nationally and politically, Minister-President Count Kasimir Badeni offered new concessions to the Czechs in 1897 to forge the majority coalition he needed to conduct customs and trade policy negotiations with the Hungarians. These concessions, which dealt with the use of the Czech language by the bureaucracy, inflamed German-speaking Austrians. Violent rioting on a nearrevolutionary scale erupted not only in Bohemia but also in Vienna and Graz. The Badeni government fell. Because no effective majority could be assembled in the polarized parliament, the government increasingly used emergency provisions that allowed the emperor to enact laws when parliament was not in session.

The political stalemate in parliament was a reflection of socioeconomic changes in the empire that were heightening tensions among social classes and nationalities. Although the economic and psychological impact of the economic crash of 1873 endured for some time, Austria experienced steady industrialization and urbanization in the late nineteenth century. By 1890 Austria stood midway between the rural societies that bordered it on the east and south and the industrially advanced societies of Western Europe.

The German-speaking middle class, including assimilated Jews, had been the first group to translate growing numerical and economic power into political leverage. Even after the 1879 fall of the Liberal government, which had represented this group's interests, the government had to consider the concerns of the German-speaking middle class in order to maintain political stability.

In contrast to that of the middle class, the positions of the aristocracy and the Roman Catholic Church weakened. Individual aristocrats played prominent roles in the government, but the bureaucracy was assuming many functions once played by the aristocracy as a whole. For the church, the 1855 concordat between the empire and the Vatican had been a high-water mark for its formal role in political life. The Liberals' anticlerical legislation and abrogation of the concordat in 1870 curtailed the church's public presence and influence. Nonetheless, popular support for the church remained strong, and a new form of Catholic political participation was beginning to take shape based on a socially progressive platform endorsed by the 1891 papal encycylical Rerum Novarum. This largely urban movement coalesced into the Christian Social Party (Christlichsoziale Partei--CSP). Papal support was not sufficient to win the new party the approval of the conservative Austrian bishops, who continued to work through the older clerical-oriented parties.

Initially, the CSP found strong support in Vienna and controlled the city administration at the turn of the century. Nonetheless, the party was unable to hold its desired base among industrial workers in the face of competition from the Social Democratic Workers' Party (Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei-- SDAP). Founded in 1889 at a unity conference of moderate and radical socialists, the SDAP adhered to a revisionist Marxist program. The SDAP became a political home for many Austrian Jews uncomfortable with the growing anti-Semitism of the German nationalist movement, the other major political current of the time.

Rising ethnic tensions made it difficult for political parties to ignore the influence of German nationalism in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. The Liberal movement faded, largely because of its resistance to becoming a specifically German party, and dissatisfied Liberals were key figures in the formation of new nationalist movements and parties. Even though the CSP and SDAP were based on political ideologies that transcended national identity, they too were obliged to make concessions in their program to German nationalism. In the late 1890s, all German-oriented parties, with the exceptions of the SDAP and the Catholic People's Party, united in the German Front. The specific demands of the German Front were modest, but by calling for recognition of a special position for Germans in light of their historic role in the empire, German Austrians were on a collision course with other national groups.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress