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1848 Revolutions: The Austrian Empire

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Vienna, the capital of the ethnically diverse Austrian Empire, was a leading cultural center in Europe. Full of artists, composers, writers, and intellectuals, Vienna was truly the jewel of the Austrian Empire, and the Austrian empire, led by Metternich, was the paragon of reactionary politics. Yet the various ethnic groups in Austria had become increasingly nationalist over the preceding decades, and by now they all yearned to express their individual volksgeist and gain independence. Metternich had worked for years to hold the Austrian Empire together, but now, in the wake of the French February Revolution, the ethnic groups vehemently opposed assimilation.

In March 1848, a radical Hungarian Magyar group led by Louis Kossuth began a vocal independence movement. Kossuth's fiery speeches were soon printed in Vienna, where they started a sensation and soon an uprising. Metternich, monitoring the Revolutions throughout Europe, had become fearful. He decided to flee, and quickly snuck out of Vienna. The situation probably wasn't as bad as he thought, but once news got out that Metternich had left, the Austrian revolutionaries got truly excited. Austrian Czechs and numerous Austrian controlled Italian states followed the Magyars lead. Some of the revolutionary excitement also spilled into Prussia, where, to ease the pressure, the Prussian King Frederick William IV promised a constitution. On March 15, Kossuth's Hungary was granted independence under Hapsburg rule. The Czech movement in Bohemia soon received the same status, and Italian states like Milan soon overthrew Austrian occupation.

In June 1848, the revolutions in Austria began to run out of steam. After all, it was a non-industrialized country that did not have a well-developed middle class. Their revolution, largely led by intellectuals and students, could not marshal the same amount of popular support as the bourgeoisie in Western Europe.

In June 1848, in Prague, a group of Slavic nationalists held a Pan-Slavism conference in an attempt to stop Bohemia from being swallowed by Germany. The conference soon became violent. Emperor Ferdinand of Austria smashed the Prague insurrection using the army, and he also sent his forces against the rebellious Italian states of Lombardy and Milan, which were soon reconquered. In September and October of 1848, Louis Kossuth started a movement to make Magyar the official language of Hungary, even though only half of the population of Hungary spoke Magyar. The Serbo-Croatians, who did not speak the Magyar language, rebelled and asked the Hapsburgs for help. In December, another rebellion in Vienna led Emperor Ferdinand to abdicate, putting his son, Franz Joseph, into power. Franz Joseph quickly appealed to the Russians, who marched into Hungary and crushed the Magyars. The 1848 revolutions in Austria came to an end, restoring order in the Empire.


The Austrian Empire was very large in 1848, and filled with around a dozen ethnicities, each with its own language. In some areas, certain ethnic groups dominated, while in other areas, other groups dominated. Austria itself had a German majority, while the Magyars were the predominant ethnicity in Hungary. Czechs dominated Bohemia, and various groups of Slavs made up most of the remaining population of the Empire.

With the first spark, these separate nationalist ethnicities exploded. However, like France, after a moment of nationalist promise the revolutions of 1848 soon dissolved or were crushed. The big weakness of the Austrian revolutionaries lay in the structure of Austrian society. Unlike Britain and France, with its large middle class buoyed by industrialized wealth and its urban working class, Austria had no well-developed middle class. The Austrian revolutions, particularly in Vienna, therefore had no powerful support base. The students and intellectuals couldn't sway the illiterate and rural peasants who had no notion of nationalism and who primarily made up the army. The army thus stayed loyal to the Hapsburgs and helped to suppress the revolution. With Vienna intact, the Hapsburgs were able to move out through their empire and reconquer it, with the help of the Russians.

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