THE REVOLUTION OF 1848 AND NEOABSOLUTISM
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.
Data as of December 1993