The fate of German and Italian nationalism in 1848 hinged partly on the outcome of the revolutions in the Habsburg Empire. If these revolutions had immobilized the Habsburg government for a long period, the Italian and German unification might have been realized. But Austria rode out the storm. The success of the counterrevolution in the Habsburg Empire also assured its victory in Italy and Germany.
The nature and the outcome of the Habsburg revolutions depended in turn on the complex structure of nationalities with the Austrian Empire. There were several nationalities under Habsburg rule in 1848:
These national groups were not always separated geographically. For instance, in the Hungarian part of the empire—which had large minorities of Slovaks, Romanians, Serbs, Croats, and Germans—the dominant Magyars fell just short of a majority. Throughout the empire, moreover, the German element, chiefly bureaucrats and
merchants, predominated in most of the towns and cities.
Among the peoples of the Habsburg realm in 1848, nationalism ran strongest among the Italians of Lombardy-Venetia, the Czechs of Bohemia, and the Magyars and Croats of Hungary. Language was an important issue among Magyars, as it was with Czechs; the replacement of Latin by Hungarian as the official language of the eastern part of the empire in 1844
marked a victory for Magyar nationalism. The spellbinding orator Lajos Kossuth (1802-1894), an ardent nationalist, regarded the linguistic reform of 1844 as but the first in a series of revolutionary projects cutting all ties with Vienna. But Magyar nationalists bitterly opposed the national aspirations of their own Slavic subjects. The most discontented were the Croats, whose national awakening had begun when their homeland was absorbed into Napoleon’s empire.
The antagonism between Croats and Magyars revealed an all-important fact about the nationalistic movements within the Habsburg Empire. Some groups– Italians, Magyars, Czechs, Poles—resented the German- dominated government in Vienna. Others, notably the Croats and Romanians, were less anti-German than anti- Magyar. Here was a situation where the central government in Vienna might apply a policy of divide and conquer, pitting anti-Magyar elements against anti-German Maygars, and subduing both. This was substantially what happened in 1848. A similar policy had already been used in 1846 to suppress a revolt in Austrian Poland. When the Polish landlords had revolted, their exploited Ruthenian peasants had risen against them and received the backing of Vienna.
From 1815 to 1848 the Habsburg government virtually ignored the grumblings and protests that arose in almost every quarter of the empire. Metternich probably wanted to make some concessions to liberal and nationalist aspirations, but he was blocked by the emperors— the bureaucratic Francis I (r. 1792-1835) and the weak Ferdinand I (r. 1835-1848)—and by the vested interests of the aristocracy.
The news of the February revolution in Paris shook the empire to its foundations. Four separate revolutions broke out almost simultaneously in March 1848: in Milan and Venice, in Hungary, in Vienna itself, and in Bohemia. In Hungary, Kossuth and his Magyar supporters forced Emperor Ferdinand to give Hungary political autonomy, institute parliamentary government, and substitute an elected legislature for the feudal Hungarian diet. New laws abolished serfdom and ended the immunity of nobles and gentry from taxation.
Aroused by the Hungarian revolt, university students and unemployed workers rose in Vienna on March 12. On the next day Metternich resigned and fled to Britain. Although the imperial government repeatedly promised reforms, the constitution it granted seemed woefully inadequate to the Viennese insurgents. By May the political atmosphere was so charged that Emperor Ferdinand and his family left the capital for the Tyrol. Pending a meeting of a constituent assembly in July, a revolutionary council ran affairs in Vienna. In the meantime, Austrian forces were at war in Piedmont. In September a constituent assembly, meeting in Vienna and representing all the Habsburg provinces except the Italian and the Hungarian, emancipated the peasants from their obligation to work for the landlords.
Meanwhile, in Prague, Czech nationalists were demanding rights similar to those granted the Magyars. In June 1848 the Czechs organized a Pan-Slav Congress to promote the solidarity of Slavic peoples against “Big German” encroachments. The Pan-Slav Congress set off demonstrations, during which the wife of the commander of the Austrian garrison in Prague was accidentally killed. Five days later the commander, after bombarding Prague, dispersed the Czech revolutionaries and established a military regime in Bohemia.
The counterrevolution had begun. The imperial government authorized the governor of Croatia to invade central Hungary to put down revolt there. While the Magyars held off the imperial forces, the radicals of Vienna revolted again, proclaiming their support of the Magyars and declaring Austria a democratic republic. But the Habsburg armies crushed the Vienna revolution (October 31, 1848) and executed the radical leaders.
In November 1848 the energetic and unscrupulous Prince Felix Schwarzenberg (1800-1852) became the Austrian prime minister. Schwarzenberg arranged the abdication of Ferdinand I and the accession of Ferdinand’s nephew, Francis Joseph (r. 1848-1916). He then declared that the promises made by the old emperor could not legally bind his successor and shelved the projects of the constituent assembly, though he honored the emancipation of the peasantry. The Magyars fought on. In April 1849 the parliament of Hungary declared the country an independent republic and named Kossuth its chief executive. Russia now offered Austria military assistance. In August 1849 Russian troops helped to subjugate the Hungarian republic.
“The narrow spirit of nationalism” was to grow ever more intense after 1848. It was eventually to destroy the Habsburg Empire. The failure of the liberals to unify Italy and Germany in 1848 transferred the leadership of the nationalist movements from the amateur revolutionaries to the professional politicians of Piedmont and Prussia. Piedmont, alone among the Italian states, retained the moderate constitution it had secured in 1848; in Germany the anti-liberal Count Otto von Bismarck was to achieve through “blood and iron” what the Frankfurt Assembly had not accomplished peacefully.
Equally dramatic was the role of the working class, particularly in France, and of the peasantry, which arose in violent revolt in 1851, only to be crushed. Europe was experiencing the challenge of the forces released by the industrial revolution, and new demands for drastic social and economic changes were arising alongside the older demands for political liberties, constitutions, and the end of peasant servitude. The year 1848 was not only the year of abortive revolution but also the year in which Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published their guidelines for future revolutions in The Communist Manifesto.