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Prague Upheavals of 1848

Prague Upheavals of 1848 in Prague arose from processes similar to those in other major Austrian and German cities. The Habsburg authorities faced diverse and growing opposition in the Bohemian capital in the 1840s, but no group initiated a revolution before news of other uprisings and the government's own weakness provided the opportunity. Earlier in the decade some of the aristocrats in the Bohemian Diet had begun to attack the centralization of authority in Vienna and the regime's failure to address provincial problems. In Prague, students, educated professionals, and some entrepreneurial elements also criticized the sclerotic bureaucracy, the lack of representative institutions and civil equality, and the persistence of the peasants' obligatory labor services. The nascent Czech nationalist movement, which was strongest among the petty bourgeoisie of Prague and the lesser Bohemian towns, called for liberal constitutional reforms and equal educational rights for Czech-speakers and Germans. These opposition groups became increasingly vocal in the mid-1840s, but none of them planned for the imminent seizure of power. Nonetheless, the hardships of the 1840s depression, the resulting popular unrest, and the growing paralysis of the Habsburg government created a crisis situation by the end of 1847.

At this time Prague had a population of over 115,000 that was increasing rapidly due to migration from the countryside and the beginnings of mechanized industry. In 1844 textile workers protested low wages, broke machines, and attacked Jewish factory owners and small businessmen. Again in 1847, laboring elements protested against unemployment, food shortages, and high food prices; and such protests recurred in 1848. The civil and military authorities evoked popular anger for enforcing the customs duties on food introduced in 1829 and for repressing the worker protests. In face of the laborers' misery, some of Prague's most radical students and intellectuals developed an interest in utopian socialism, but the middle-class liberals as well as the aristocratic opposition generally rejected any infringement of property rights. As the economic and social problems mounted, the highest authorities in Prague, like those in Vienna, increasingly showed themselves to be unsure and divided as to how to respond to the situation.

News of uprisings in Italy and then of the Parisian revolution in late February 1848 galvanized Prague's oppositional groups to call for immediate constitutional reforms. On March 2 a group of noblemen demanded that the provincial governor convene the Bohemian Diet with increased middle-class representation. Independently on March 6, radicals from the "Repeal" group issued a call in Czech and German for a public meeting at the St. Vaclav's (Wenceslas) Baths to draft a petition to the emperor for reform. That gathering, held on March 11, a second one on April 10, and the associated committee meetings became the principal venues for liberal political action in Prague during the spring of 1848. The participants in the first public meeting were mostly young and Czech-speaking, primarily middle and lower middle class with few workers, almost none of the upper bourgeoisie, and no noblemen. They approved a petition calling for full civil liberties, the abolition of the peasants' feudal obligations, creation of a citizens' militia, Czech-language instruction in the schools, and a constitutional government with elected representatives of the nobility, clergy, burghers, and peasants. Czech nationalists inserted the demand for a united annual Diet for Bohemia, Moravia, and Austrian Silesia, but radicals found little support for any "organization of labor" along utopian socialist lines. Indeed, Prague's liberal constitutional reformers, both Czech and German, took a conservative stand on social questions throughout the spring.

In March and April, the mayor, the more conservative burghers, and even the provincial governor were willing to concede many to these demands, particularly after the imperial court dismissed Metternich and promised reforms. The governor, Rudolf Count Stadion, impaneled a commission on April 1 to consider governmental reform, but within two weeks he agreed to merge that body with the St. Vaclav Committee to form a "National Committee" to plan the election of a new Bohemian Diet. German nationalist sentiment had been slow to develop in Prague, but the Czech majority in the national committee and the growing demands in the Czech press for the political rights of the Czech majority in Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia put the German-speaking middle-class elements on the defensive. In March and April, Czech and German-speaking liberals worked together for constitutional reform, but by mid-May all of the Germans had withdrawn from the National Committee, leaving it a major forum for Czech nationalist political activity. To advance the cause of civil and cultural rights for all Slavic peoples in the Habsburg Monarchy, the historian Frantisek Palacky and other Czech leaders began in late April to organize a Slavic congress to meet in Prague five weeks later.

Bloody repression by the Habsburg military in June ended the liberal efforts in Prague to win constitutional reform. Radical Czech students viewed as a provocation the return on May 20 of the reactionary military commander Alfred Prince Windischgrätz. They vainly demanded arms for their academic legion, and on Whit-Monday, June 12, during the Slavic congress, they organized an outdoor "Slavic" mass at the Horse Market, now Wenceslas Square. After the mass, students and workers soon began to fight with Windischgrätz's soldiers. After six days of street fighting, artillery bombardments, and more than a hundred casualties, Windischgrätz took control of the city under a state of siege. The provincial government dissolved the National Committee at the end of June and stopped plans to elect a new Diet. Some of the German-speaking patriciate openly welcomed the reimposition of governmental authority, and local middle-class support for constitutional reform rapidly diminished.

The last significant attempt at revolutionary activity in the Bohemian capital came in May 1849. Encouraged by Mikhail Bakunin, a group of Czech and German student radicals planned an uprising. The police uncovered the conspiracy and imposed a new state of siege which lasted until August 1853.

Gary B. Cohen


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