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Austria and ethnic nationalism: 1814-1848

The French revolution and Napoleon's reforms inspire suppressed minorities throughout Europe with the dream of self-determination. This is particularly true in those parts of the Austrian empire where people of non-Germanic origin have a long and proud history of their own.

A sense of increasing unrest is felt in Hungary and Bohemia, and also in smaller regions such as Slovakia and Croatia. Even the German middle classes in Austria feel that change is essential in the stultifying society presided over by Francis I and Metternich, where oppressive bureaucracy is preserved by a network of spies reporting to the secret police.

The ethnic tensions which develop in Hungary and Bohemia are of some complexity. The Germans in these regions of the Habsburg empire take it for granted that they are the ruling community and that German should be the language of government. But the Hungarians, in particular, have a different view of the situation. Enjoying the status of a separate kingdom within the empire (since 1723), they are determined that Magyar traditions shall prevail. The Hungarian diet of 1844 declares that Magyar is to be the official language of the state (see Language and nationalism).

This development in turn outrages another minority group, the Croatians, whose territory lies within the Hungarian kingdom.

The Croatians, as Slavs, are part of the third major strand in the nationalistic aspirations of these regions. Slav demands are more complex than those of the Magyars. They are expressed by geograpically separate groups (including the Czechs and Slovaks) which nevertheless feel a strong sense of shared identity. And the Slavs have a variety of political masters on whom to focus their hatred.

The Croatians and Slovakians are within the Hungarian kingdom. They are therefore anti-Magyar and are willing, for the sake of political alliance, to be pro-German. But the Czechs of Bohemia and Moravia are within Austria and are ruled from Vienna. Their nationalists are uncompromisingly anti-German.

In Bohemia, as in Hungary, nationalism expresses itself through the language and history of the ethnic group. A Bohemian museum is founded in Prague in 1818. A history of Bohemia and Moravia, written by Frantisek Palacky and appearing from 1836, offends the Habsburg censors by identifying the Hussite period as the defining moment of Czech identity.

These nationalist aspirations represent a jockeying for position within the Habsburg empire rather than a bid for full independence. But the issues gain a new intensity in the revolutionary year of 1848.

Revolutions: 1848-1849

The example of the February revolution in Paris prompts a ripple effect in the discontented cities of the Habsburg empire. Vienna is the first to rise, on March 12, and the long-serving chancellor Metternich is the first victim - he is forced to resign on the 13th.

On March 17 the Hungarian diet adopts a liberal consitution which is tantamount to claiming Hungarian independence, leaving a link with Vienna only through the emperor's personal rule as king of Hungary. In normal circumstances this would be a revolutionary act, but in the atmosphere of 1848 it rapidly acquires legitimacy. The emperor (now Ferdinand I) considers it prudent to grant his royal assent, on April 11.

Meanwhile the Slavs see their chance. In April the Croatians declare independence from Hungary and expel Magyars from all civil service posts. In June a pan-Slav congress assembles in Prague with Palacky, the Czech nationalist historian, as president.

The excitement of the occasion is expressed in a demonstration by radical Czech students. The Austrian commander of Prague takes the opportunity to impose martial rule. It is the first of several occasions over the next twelve months in which imperial troops are able to restore order, often because groups with different revolutionary aims fail to assist each other - and even, on occasion, lend their support to the imperial power.

In Vienna, on May 17, the situation is so tense that the emperor Ferdinand I flees for safety to Innsbruck. In August he is persuaded to return to the capital, but on October 6 another uprising delivers the city into the hands of German radicals. This time the emperor escapes to Olomouc in Moravia.

By the end of the month Vienna has been recovered by an imperial army, with the assistance of Croatian revolutionaries hoping to win official support in their own campaign for Slav self-rule. In January 1849 the same alliance, imperial and Croatian, captures the city of Buda where the Hungarian government has been showing aggressive signs of independence, under the leadership of Lajos Kossuth.

Kossuth has been a radical member of the Hungarian diet since 1847. It is his passion and oratory which has encouraged the Hungarians in each step of their confrontation with Vienna. Since September 1848 he has been president of a committee of national defence. Now, in January 1849, on the fall of Buda, he withdraws to the relative safety of Debrecen. There, in April, his committee deposes the Habsburgs and declares Hungary to be an independent state with Kossuth as governor.

In this crisis the Austrian emperor is saved only by the Russian emperor, Nicholas I, who sends an army. By mid-August Hungary has been overrun by Russian and Austrian forces. Kossuth flees to safety abroad.

By the autumn of 1849 the Habsburg empire is back under control. As in the aftermath of any failed revolutionary period, the reaction is harsh. Executions of radical leaders in Vienna and Buda are followed by a return to the restrictive rule which preceded the revolutions.

There are only two lasting results. The feeble emperor Ferdinand I abdicates in December 1848 in favour of his young nephew, Francis Joseph, whose 68-year reign sees the Austrian empire almost to its end. And the compulsory labour of serfdom, known in these regions as Robot, is at last abolished in the Habsburg empire (the reform by Joseph II in 1789 having been soon reversed by his younger brother Leopold II).

Repression and compromise in Austria-Hungary: 1849-67

In the years after the defeat of Kossuth's independent Hungary in 1849, the kingdom is ruled from Vienna almost as a subject territory. Administration is conducted largely by Germans and in the German language. The Magyars, accustomed to a position of privilege as the ruling majority, are now treated merely on an equal footing with the other ethnic or linguistic groups.

This policy is met by sullen non-cooperation, highly effective in practical matters such as the payment of taxes. By the 1860s the two sides are willing to compromise. In 1865 a committee is appointed to consider the options for a new constitutional framework.

During the negotiations Austria is distracted by the embarrassingly brief Seven Weeks' War of 1866. But the Austrian defeat does not alter the outcome of the talks, the broad outline of which is already evident.

The proposal is for a return to the separation of the Hungarian kingdom from the Austrian empire, similar to the arrangement of 1723 but falling short of the independence achieved in 1848. Foreign affairs and defence are to be conducted jointly on behalf of the two states, with the responsible ministers being alternately Austrian and Hungarian. On all internal matters Hungary is to be independent.

This arrangement becomes known in German as the Ausgleich, meaning literally 'settlement' but usually translated into English as the Compromise. A Hungarian parliament, reestablished in February 1867, accepts the arrangement in May. Francis Joseph, now nearly twenty years into his reign as emperor of Austria, is crowned king of Hungary in June.

His new realm, with its dual entity, is to be known as Austria-Hungary. The arrangement soothes Magyar aspirations, but it severely affronts the Slavs - now more than ever separated as second-class citizens in two states, the Bohemians and Moravians in Austria and the Slovakians and Croatians in Hungary.

Compromise versus Independence: 1867-1918

Semi-independence by means of the dual monarchy gives Hungary a period of relative calm and increasing prosperity. Even so, the compromise of 1867 remains the central theme of Hungarian politics. Parties become associated with one or other of two years. Those grouped under 1867 believe in cooperation with Austria and in making the settlement of that year work. Those associated with 1848 look back nostalgically to the greater degree of independence achieved in that year (some of them use the name Independence party).

Meanwhile older tensions gradually re-emerge.

A Nationalities Act, passed in 1868, guarantees the right of the linguistic minorities in the kingdom to use their own languages in such areas as secondary education and local administration. But inevitably, in view of the region's history of ethnic nationalism, the Magyar majority tries to impose its own culture in a process which becomes known as 'magyarization'.

Politically many of the Slavs retain their hopes of an independent status within the Habsburg empire. A minority of the more radical Croats dream of joining the Serbs in a nation of southern Slavs (or Yugoslavs). These questions become urgent in the crisis leading up to the annexation by Austria-Hungary in 1908 of Bosnia-Hercegovina.

Within Hungary the spirit of the Compromise of 1867 prevails over the wish for Independence.

A new '1867' party, the National Party of Work, wins a majority in the elections of 1910. Its leader, Istvan Tisza, ensures that Hungary stands by Austria in 1914. The nation therefore shares the defeat of Germany and Austria in World War I.

This History is as yet incomplete.

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