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Austrian Reichstag

The Vienna Reichstag, which met from July-November 1848, was born of two factors: urban idealism, expressed by what proved a transitory alliance among students, bourgeois liberals, and working people; and the power vacuum at the Habsburg court, when the fall of Prince Klemens von Metternich in March left responsibility in the hands of the well-intentioned but epileptic and enfeebled Emperor Ferdinand. The Vienna Reichstag drew its energy from the belief so prevalent throughout Europe at the time that anything was possible--in this case that constitutionalism and nationalism would prove easily reconcilable to reasonable men working in concert. Its own in ternal contradictions undermined its influence.

By the time the Reichstag opened on July 22, its turbulent prehistory hinted at many of its later difficulties. One of the first concessions extracted from the court following the Vienna uprising of March 13 was the establishment of constitutional government. On April 23, the government presented its own version of a constitution as the gift of the emperor to his people. It called for a bicameral legislature, comprising a Senate drawing its members fr om the imperial family, imperial appointees, and members elected by landowners; and a Chamber of Deputies to be elected by a franchise restricted by a property requirement. But the document remained silent on some of the most critical issues: ministerial responsibility; and the relationship between the central government and the provinces (meaning, in effect, all nationality issues). The Viennese especially resented the property requirement, all the more so since the Frankfurt Parliament in Germany was el ected by universal male suffrage. A demonstration in Vienna on May 15 provoked the departure of the imperial family for Innsbruck. But a departing proclamation from Ferdinand issued on May 16 announced that a unicameral legislature would be elected with no property restriction.

The 383 deputies who met on July 22 represented all of the Habsburg domains except Italy (in open rebellion) and Hungary (which had its own Diet). The Reichstag counted among its members many eminent persons who would end up on a variety of political sides before the dramas of 1848 were over: Count Franz Stadion; Baron Alexander Bach; the revolutionary physician Dr. Adolph Fischoff; and the Czech intellectuals Frantisek Palacky and Karel Havlicek. An estimated 60 percent of the deputies were classified as "bourgeois" and 25 percent "peasants," though many of these were reasonably well off. About half of the deputies (190 of 383) were Slavs of one variety or another. Despite the important role of the Viennese crowd in events leading up to the election of the Reichstag, Viennese radicals were conspicuously absent. The student-dominated Academic Legion nominated only five deputies, not all of whom proved demonstrably left wing.

In his opening speech on behalf of Emperor Ferdinand on July 22, Archduke John generously referred to the Vienna Reichstag as a constituent assembly. However, the sovereignty of the body was never agreed upon by all its members (to say nothing of the court), and its exact writ proved a subject of great controversy, particularly among national groups. Before long, distinctions between "left" and "right" soon proved secondary to national ones. Not surprisingly, all but the Germans sat according to nationality in the Reichstag.

Czechs stood out earliest and perhaps most predominantly. Most advocated "Austroslavism," meaning Slavic national development within a federalized Habsburg Monarchy. But they pursued nationality issues in a charged context that had been taking shape even before the Vie nna Reichstag opened. Czech leaders had long been highly suspicious of the Frankfurt parliament, dedicated to bringing about a constitutional, united Germany. (Bohemia and Moravia, after all, had been part of the German Confederation.) Austroslavism also implied diminishing the relative influence of ethnic Germans within the Habsburg monarchy. On June 1, Palacky had opened a Slav congress in Prague, to counter the deliberations in Frankfurt. On June 15, Alfred Windischgraetz, though not directly relate d to the Slav congress, demonstrated nevertheless that the army operating on behalf of the anational dynasty had not abdicated its role in determining the future of the Habsburg lands. After the murder of War Minister Count Theodor Latour by the Viennese crowd in October 1848, Czech deputies to the Reichstag withdrew entirely. This earned them the abiding contempt of liberal (particularly Germans) for treacherously deserting the reformist cause in its hour of need.

Ironically, the one concrete achie vement of the Vienna Reichstag--the abolition of the remaining legal forms of agrarian feudalism--began its undoing. A decree issued by Emperor Ferdinand back on April 11 had promised to free peasants from all dues tied to the land as of January 1, 1849, and charged the provincial estates with passing the enabling legislation in the interim. Given Ferdinand's political stature, peasants and reformists not surprisingly sought more precise guarantees through the Reichstag. On July 24, deputy Hans Kudlich, a law student of relatively prosperous Silesian peasant origins, put forward a proposal to abolish all such obligations without compensation. This proved far too radical for most of his colleagues, however, and the Reichstag spent the remainder of the summer debating no fewer than seventy-three amendments, most dealing with compensation. The formula finally agreed to at the beginning of September abolished political feudal rights (such as local courts) without compensation. But landlords were to receive compensation for economic feudal rights (such as a stipulated share of the crop and, most importantly, the hated unpaid labor or Robot at two-thirds of their nominal value. Half of the compensation was to be paid by peasants themselves, and the other half by the province comprising the lands in question. If anything, these arrangements actually improved the economic situation of the landlords. But the abolition of legal feudalism fulfilled peasants' essential demand in the revolution. Hence forth they became a stabilizing or even counterrevolutionary force, both in the Reichstag and outside it.

The harsh political climate that emerged after the murder of Count Latour demonstrated the growing marginalization of the Vienna Reichstag. The bombardment and occupation of Vienna by Windischgraetz at the end of October effectively ended the urban revolutionary movement that had nourished the Reichstag since its inception. The self-mobilization of the army on behalf of the dynasty meant that th e power vacuum in the imperial court was ending even before Ferdinand abdicated in favor of Francis-Joseph in December. After the October troubles, the Reichstag relocated to the Moravian city of Kremsier. It continued to meet until March 1849, and indeed produced the ill-fated Kremsier constitution cast aside by Count Stadion. But for some months, it had been clear that de facto sovereignty in the monarchy lay in the crown, its ministers, and the army--and not necessarily in that order.

Leonard V. Smith


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Kann, Robert A. The Multinational Empire, 2 vols. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1950)

MacCartney, C. A. The Habsburg Empire (London: Macmillan, 1969)

Rath, Reuben John. The Viennese Revolution of 1848 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1957)

Robertson, Priscilla. R evolutions of 1848: A Social History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952)

Sked, Alan. The Decline and Fall of the Habsburg Empire 1815-1918 (New York: Longman, 1989)

Taylor, A. J. P. The Habsburg Monarchy, 1809-1918 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1948)

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