History of Austria


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.

The Failure of Neo-Absolutism

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.

Loss of Leadership in Germany

Through the early 1860s, Austria maintained hope of retaining leadership in Germany because the smaller states preferred weak Austrian leadership to Prussian domination. Nonetheless, by mid-1864 Franz Joseph realized that war was inevitable if Austrian leadership was to be preserved.

The immediate cause of the Seven Weeks' War between Austria and Prussia in 1866 was Prussia's desire to annex the Duchy of Holstein. Austria and Prussia had together fought a brief war against Denmark in 1864 to secure the predominantly German duchies of Schleswig and Holstein for Germany. Pending final decision on their future, Prussia took control of Schleswig, and Austria took control of Holstein. In April 1866, however, Prussia plotted with Italy to wage a two-front war against Austria that would enable Prussia to gain Holstein and Italy to gain Venetia. Although Austria tried to keep Italy out of the war through a last-minute offer to surrender Venetia to it, Italy joined the war with Prussia. Austria won key victories over Italy but lost the decisive Battle of Königgrätz (Hradec Králové in the presentday Czech Republic) to Prussia in July 1866.

Defeated, Austria agreed to the dissolution of the German Confederation and accepted the formation of a Prussian-dominated North German Confederation, which became the basis of the German Empire in 1871. The south German states--Bavaria, Baden, Württemberg, and Hesse-Darmstadt--were accorded an "independent international existence" and, in theory, could have gravitated toward Austria. Nevertheless, their military and commercial ties to Prussia militated against such an outcome. The province of Venetia, Austria's last Italian possession, was transferred to Italy.

Austria History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress