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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.

Old Czechs, Young Czechs and Germans: 1848-1914

During the second half of the 19th century the main political issue in Bohemia and Moravia is the mounting tension between the Czech population and the German minority, living mainly in the more industrialized region in the west which becomes internationally known in the 20th century as the Sudetenland.

Inspired by the continuing campaign in Hungary for a Magyar political identity within the Habsburg empire, the Slavs in the adjacent regions of Moravia, Bohemia and Slovakia begin to aim for something similar. But their hopes are dashed in 1867, when the emperor Francis Joseph gives in to Magyar demands and sets up the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary.

The border between the separate kingdoms of Austria and Hungary runs between Bohemia and Slovakia. Slavs are now subject to Germans in Austria north of this line, and to Magyars in Hungary south of it.

In Bohemia and Moravia this setback intensifies the local struggle for Czech values against German predominance. Gradually, as Czechs become more prosperous and more literate, significant advances are made - particularly in the use of the Czech language in education and in courts of law (see Language and nationalism). In 1882 the Czech departments in the long-established German university in Prague become a separate and independent Czech university. One of its first professors is a philosopher, Tomas Masaryk.

To many in Bohemia the pace of Czech progress seems too slow. By the 1890s Czech nationalists are divided into two camps. The more conservative and cautious among them become known as the Old Czechs. The radical group, more aggressively nationalist in their demands, are the Young Czechs. It is they who do surprisingly well in the elections of 1891. Over the next two decades hostilities between Germans and Czechs become increasingly strident, though a calmer tone is introduced by a party founded by Masaryk - known first as the Realists, but after 1900 as the Progressive party.

In the event, as so often, it is war which first intensifies and then finally resolves the issue.

This History is as yet incomplete.

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