Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

The Revolutions of 1848 in the Hapsburg areas

The "parent" of this page and all references are at Revolution of 1848.

The Austrian Empire in 1848

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, and Croats.

The early rumblings

The focus of hatred was Chancellor Metternich, a seeming avatar of reaction; the [[Dictator | 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.

Hungary was in a low-level nationalist revolt by 1844, their leader Kossuth attacking Chancellor Metternich. The 1847 depression hit hard. Crime, prostitution, and beggary increased, and workers' couldn't afford potatoes.

The Revolutions reach the Austrian Empire; a few early victories

The Paris Revolution filtered over to Vienna, raising the already-insistent calls for liberal reform. Chancellor Metternich 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, Romanians, and Hungarians, the Hungarians and Italians pushed hardest for self-determination. In Hungary a new national cabinet took power and the Diet (parliament) approved a sweeping reform package that changed almost every aspect of Hungary's economic, social, and political life. The Czechs held a congress in Prague, asking for greater freedom in the Empire, but their status as peasants and proletariatss surrounded by a German middle class doomed their autonomy.

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.

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. Things were happening outside Vienna.

The Hungarian territories and their restiveness in 1848

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 became known as a Lost Cause. Hungarians set out to form their own government. Racial, linguistic, and religious splits doomed them, notably the bad decision of limiting membership in the new Diet in Pest (across the Danube from Buda) to speakers of Hungarian, angering the Slavs.

The war of Hungarian independence

Croatia, seeking independence, severed relations with the Hungarian government, and by September 1848 Jelacic who had become governor of Croatia in March led an army into Hungary. Hungarians filtered over from Italy; many women served, and the Jews actually supported the nation in which they lived. But independent Hungary progressively shrunk. The war wavered back and forth; basing his ideas on the American Declaration of Independence, Hungary's leader Kossuth declared independence. Unlike the Americans, 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. Kossuth and others escaped to ultimately 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.


Vienna was under martial law, and counter-revolution had spread throughout the Empire. Despite real successes, nationalistic antagonisms doomed further reform. The Austrian Empire collapsed in 1918 at the end of World War I.

External links

Next: The German states