The Revolutions of 1848 in the Habsburg areas

From Academic Kids

The Revolutions
of 1848
Revolution in France
Revolution in Habsburg areas
Revolution in Germany
Revolution in Italy
Revolution in Poland

In 1848, the Austrian Empire under the Habsburgs was confronted with the combined effect of economic, social class, and nationalities conflicts. Within its boundaries lived Austrian Germans, Hungarians, Slovenes, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Ruthenians, Romanians, Serbs, Italians and Croats.


The early rumblings

The focus of hatred was Chancellor Metternich, a seeming avatar of reaction; the absolute ruler, the Emperor Ferdinand, was feebleminded and incompetent. He was oddly popular, seen as guided by bad advisors.

Business interests wanted reform. They wanted solid finance, roads, railroads, and technology. High tariffs crippled commerce; the crown would not lower tariffs on foreign wheat at times of famine. Press freedom was a liberal dream; government spies were everywhere. Factory workers were miserable. All books, newspapers and ads were government-approved. Private ownership of firearms was also restricted by the government.

Hungary was in a low-level nationalist revolt by 1844, their leader Kossuth attacking Chancellor Metternich. Kraków had been just annexed in 1846 following an unsuccessful Polish uprising. The 1847 depression hit hard. Crime, prostitution, and beggary increased, and workers' couldn't afford potatoes.

Revolution in the Austrian lands

A few early victories

The Paris Revolution filtered over to Vienna, raising the already-insistent calls for liberal reform. The Habsburg Court pressured Chancellor Metternich to step down in order to placate the subject nationalities, and he resigned on March 13, 1848, fleeing to England. He had been in office too long, now 74, and was seen as a reactionary, having conducted foreign affairs for thirty years, notably with less competence since 1835. Revolts broke out across the Empire; Lombardy and Venetia were in arms.

Vienna had troubles as well. There was violence and Luddite destruction of property. Many employers later announced concessions; on March 14 the press was declared free.

Metternich's fall was a great victory for the revolutionaries (mainly students) -- a reactionary exemplar of the old order ousted. But the Revolution increased unemployment over 1847, and Vienna seemed in a reign of terror; there was a crime wave. The Habsburgs were pushed towards reform, though for but a short time. By April there was a constitution for parts of the empire.

The Imperial Court fled to Innsbruck by May 17, while back in France, the old order was already re-asserting itself. Anarchy was looking less appealing.

Ethnic disputes

Of the hodgepodge of nationalities -- Germans, Czechs, Italians, Poles, Serbs, Croats, Slovaks, Romanians, and Hungarians, the Hungarians and Italians pushed hardest for self-determination.

In Hungary a new national cabinet took power under Lajos Kossuth and the Diet (parliament) approved a sweeping reform package (referred to as the March Laws) that changed almost every aspect of Hungary's economic, social, and political life, giving the Magyar nobility and lower gentry in the parliament control over its own military, its budget, and foreign policy.

The Czechs held a congress in Prague, asking for greater freedom in the Empire, but their status as peasants and proletariats surrounded by a German middle class doomed their autonomy. They also disliked the prospect of annexation of Bohemia to a German Empire.

Both the Czech and Italian revolutions were defeated by the Habsburgs (more on the Italians in another page). Prague was the first victory of counter-revolution in the Austrian Empire.

On the meeting of the peoples of the Empire that was held in Bratislava, the Serbs have pleaded for the acknowledgement of their nation, education in their language and their separate region. Lajos Kossuth, the leader of Hungary, told them that "the only nation that exists in the Hungarian Kingdom is the Magyar nation" and that "the rebels should be punished by sword".

A few victories

The early successes of the revolution in the Habsburg lands were easy -- perhaps too easy, for divisions in the revolutionaries soon showed, capitalized upon by the counter-revolution.

On July 22, the Austrian Constituent Assembly gathered in Vienna, aware of the power of the revolutionaries, but frightened of mob rule and democracy. Something had to give, and here came a few of the real accomplishments of the revolution -- the oppressive feudal system under which the peasants (the bulk of the population) toiled was reduced; the hated robot rule of service to one's lord was abolished, and some hereditary rights of the nobility were cut. While the peasants scored genuine gains, the monarchy was untouched, and when the revolutionaries murdered the unpopular minister of war, counter-revolution put Vienna under military rule by October 1848. The Constituent Assembly invited the royal family back from Innsbruck; the weak-minded Emperor Ferdinand I was replaced.

Revolution in the Kingdom of Hungary

See also: History of Hungary

Hungary, at just over half the land area of the Empire, at the time was a bit like the American south of the time: agricultural, backwards economically, controlled by a reactionary elite, and soon to fight a war of independence that was a lost cause from the beginning due to ethnic, linguistic, and religious splits.

The Hungarians set out to form their own government, but restricted the new Pest Diet to speakers of Hungarian. This angered the Slavs and the Romanians who had their own desires for self-rule and saw no benefit in replacing one centralist government for another. Armed clashes between the Hungarians on the one hand and the Croats, Romanians, Serbs and Slovaks on the other hand followed.

Croatia, the only already autonomous province of the Hungarian Kingdom, sided with the Habsburgs and severed relations with the new Hungarian government. Josip Jelačić, who had become governor of Croatia in March, led an army into Hungary by September 1848. Hungarians filtered over from Italy; many women served, but independent Hungary progressively shrunk.

On the Hungarian National Assembly in Sremski Karlovci in May, 1848, Serbs, aided by the Romanians and Croats, declared the unification of the regions of Srijem, Banat, Backa, Baranja and one part of the Military frontier into the province of Vojvodina and wanted to unite with the Turkish autonomus state of Serbia. Hungarians were outraged by this declaration and their army confronted the Serbian army near Srbobran, where the Serbs and other peoples gained victory over Hungarians. Later Serbs and Croats reached an agreement to cooperate with Austria and Russia. Serbs gained their province, enlarged and much more diverse, containing more Germans and Romanians than Serbs. It was named the Dukedom of Vojvodina and Tamiski Banat and it was a big disapointment for the Serbian unity movement.

The war wavered back and forth; basing his ideas on the American Declaration of Independence, Hungary's leader Kossuth declared independence. It lasted about four months. By May they had recaptured all of their country except Buda, which they won after a three-week bloody siege. Hungary came close to independence in 1849.

But it was not to be. The Austrians had enlisted the help of the Russians. The Hungarians solicited help from as far away as the United States, to no avail. England did nothing; many in the U.S.A. and England at least privately favored Hungarian independence, but their governments did nothing. Finally, they surrendered.

Many were hanged or shot. The most operative of the executeds are called the 13 Martyrs of Arad (Lahner György, Aulich Lajos, Damjanich János, Knezich Károly, Leiningen-Westerburg Károly, Poeltenberg Ernő, Török Ignác, Nagy-Sándor József, Dessewffy Arisztid, Kiss Ernő, Lázár Vilmos, Schweidel József). Kossuth and others ultimately escaped to America, Kossuth giving speeches and collecting money for a new war to save his Fatherland. While Kossuth was safe, Hungary was allotted repression as never before, controlled from Vienna, and all local control abolished. But serfs were legally freed, one of few victories, and over and above, Habsburgs couldn't prevent industrial developments in Hungary any more.


Vienna was under martial law, and counter-revolution had spread throughout the Empire. Baron Alexander von Bach was given an absolutistic mandate over the Kingdom of Hungary, including Croatia whose contribution to the quelling of the revolution was ignored.

Despite real successes, nationalistic antagonisms doomed further reform. Bach was later replaced after the "Compromise" of 1867 and the creation of Austria-Hungary. The Austrian Empire collapsed in 1918 at the end of World War I.

External links

Next: The German states


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