Open main menu

The New Europe/Volume 1/Austria under Francis Joseph

< The New Europe‎ | Volume 1

The New Europe
Vol. I, No. 7. November 30, 1916

Austria under Francis Joseph


"Francis Joseph" became Emperor of Austria on 2nd December, 1848, in his eighteenth year, and he reigned for sixty-eight years. At the beginning of his reign the whole of Europe was shaken by revolution—the inevitable result of former disturbances, and, in particular, of the great French Revolution. Turkey and Russia were the only countries to escape the full effects of that political and spiritual upheaval, although, even in Russia, it was the ideas to which it gave birth that prompted the Emperor Nicholas I. to inaugurate a régime of the severest repression.

Until 1848 Austria was completely under the influence of Metternich, who inspired the old Habsburg system, and, indeed, gave his name to it as a kind of label. Only once, under the Emperor Joseph II., did Austria accept the modern ideas of Western Europe. It was at the time when the Great Revolution was being evolved, when Frederick the Great and even the Empress Catherine were the leaders of the so-called "enlightened" absolutism; but the French Revolution cooled all such liberal aspirations, not only on the part of the reigning sovereigns, but of the ruling classes, aristocracy and plutocracy alike. Europe for a time restored the foundations of the old régime, and Austria, under the Emperor Francis, became the bulwark of the reaction.

The French Revolution strengthened the growing nationalist feeling and led to the establishment of the national principle in politics, and it was this very movement that drove Austria, in view of her many subject nationalities, to adopt an attitude rigorously anti-national and anti-democratic. She was strengthened in this resolve by the spectacle of the Turkish Empire, which was at that very time being shaken by the rising nationalist feeling of the Serbs and Greeks.

In order fully to understand the reactionary system of government which has characterised Austria-Hungary, and which one of the greatest Austrian poets has stigmatised as "the murder of the spirit," it will be necessary to bear in mind the main outline of that empire's historical development.

Austria was originally founded as an Eastern March to protect the German Empire against the invasion of the Asiatic nomads. Austria (Ost-Reich) means literally the Eastern Empire, or, rather, the anti-Eastern Empire. Austria, as it is now, has only existed since 1526. In that year she joined with the kingdoms of Bohemia and Hungary to form a stronger empire against the Turks. Hungary, at that time, with the exception of a small strip of land in the west, was under Turkish rule. Austria and Bohemia were the real foundations of the Habsburg Monarchy. The new confederation was legally a Personal Union of three equally independent States, having nothing in common but the monarch; gradually, however, the Habsburgs succeeded in centralising the confederated States. In this they were aided by the constant wars with Turkey: the Joint Army was an effective tool in the cause of centralisation and Germanisation. But Austria's endeavour was strongly supported by the Church also. The Habsburgs became the leaders of the Counter-Reformation, and especially of the movement against Hussite Bohemia. This Counter-Reformation, as is well known, was led by the Jesuits, and from that time, up to today, Austria in her inmost soul has been Jesuitical. It was not in vain that the Habsburgs had been united with the land of the Inquisition. Bohemia revolted against Austrian Germanising Jesuitism in 1618, but the battle of the White Mountain gave the victory to Austria. The leaders of the revolution were executed, 30,000 families had to leave Bohemia, and four-fifths of the land was confiscated. In that way Bohemia was weakened, and as Hungary, exploited by the Turks, was insignificant. Austria could impose with impunity a rigid system of centralisation. It was, above all, under Maria Theresa that this was accomplished. The reaction against the revolution and the wars against Napoleon helped to consolidate that achievement. It was in the year 1804 that the Emperor Francis proclaimed himself Emperor of Austria. In the year 1806 he resigned the crown of the Holy Roman Empire. His proclamation as Emperor of Austria was a formal announcement of the success of the centralisation of Bohemia and Hungary, and the confederation of the three States was transformed into one united State. In centralising Austria the Habsburgs consciously and unconsciously acted as emperors of Germany. They used Germany for their special dynastic aims with Austria, but, on the other hand, they also served German interests. Though the Emperor resigned the German crown, he nevertheless, at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, became the leader of the German Confederation; in fact, only the title was changed. Prussia opposed Austria because she also aspired to the leadership of Germany, but she completely gave way and accepted the reactionary principles of Austria. Metternich's system of repression strangled not only the Austrian nations but Prussia and Germany as well. It was this system of Metternich which was overthrown in 1848.

The revolution of Paris was the signal for the rising forces in Austria. The first revolutionary movement broke out in Bohemia. It was in Prague, on the 11th of March, that the first public meeting was held, national and democratic rights formulated, and deputies, freely chosen, sent to the Emperor. Prague was joined by Vienna and other cities of Austria. The Emperor Ferdinand, so-called "the Benevolent" (he was, in fact, weak-minded), granted the so-called Bohemian Charter on 8th April, and on the 25th the first Austrian Constitution was proclaimed. The revolution shows how superficial the Austrian absolutist centralisation was. The constituent parts of the empire fell apart; in Bohemia, a free national committee was elected, and it conducted the national movement; Vienna and the German part of Austria now became the revolutionary centre, and Hungary became almost independent under Kossuth's leadership.

Austria's position in Germany was also weakened by the revolution. The National Assembly of Frankfurt embodied the real national policy of Germany by accepting Prussia as the leader. Prussia also aspired to the domination of Austria, and invited the Austrian nationalities to join Germany. Palacky, in the name of the Bohemians, declined that invitation. It was at this time that Palacky coined the well-known phrase, that if Austria had not existed it would have had to be created. Palacky, of course, believed in Austria's sincerity in granting a constitution to Bohemia and to the Empire. But, as a counter-move to the Pangerman Parliament of Frankfurt, the Bohemians summoned to Prague a Slav congress. That ideal was, however, buried in the ruins of the Bohemian revolution when it was crushed by Windischgraetz.

After the Bohemian, the Viennese and the Hungarian revolutions were also crushed. Russia helped Austria against the Magyars in the name of Legitimacy; the Croats, led by Jelačić, fought for Austria on the assumption that Ban Jelačić was something more than an Austrian general; the Slovaks also were driven by Magyar oppression into joining the Austrian colours. Similarly, in Italy, Radetzky was successful in crushing the revolution. On the 5th of March, 1849, a new constitution was introduced, and this, in its turn, was succeeded by the constitution of '51. Austria was again a united and centralised empire. The system of Metternich was re—introduced under Bach. Absolutist centralism, anti-nationalism, and clericalism, were its foundations. The brilliant Bohemian publicist, Havliček, was interned in Brixen, but the other leaders of the revolution escaped and fled to America or to England. London, for a time, became the centre of this "new Europe." No sooner was the old régime restored than Austria returned to her German policy; to meet Pangerman ideals, Prince Schwarzenberg, the head of the Austrian Foreign Office, tried to unite Austria; he revived the old Austrian imperialism and dreamt of an empire of 72,000,000 people. True to its foundation and spirit, Austria stipulated with Rome the Concordat, and the old mediaeval régime seemed to be restored.

The only result of the revolution was the liberation of the peasants. The revolution of '48, no doubt, was, to a great extent, social. The old financial and economic system was overthrown; the liberation of the peasants, and with it the revival of communal and municipal liberties, became, to an extent little suspected by the official classes, the germ of future national and democratic development.

Francis Joseph began his political career as a constitutional monarch, but he soon reverted to absolutism, his person being virtually proclaimed as holy. The Concordat concluded with Rome in the fifties seemed to promise safety to this re-established absolutism. The Crimean War and its effect on autocratic Russia might have taught Francis Joseph that Europe must be re-shaped, and that Austria must yield to the new spirit; but not till 1859 did he realise that mediæval absolutism, even if sanctified by the Pope, could not endure any longer. Absolutism, defeated on the battlefield, had to yield ground in the internal policy of the Empire.

In 1860 Austria was forced to adopt modern constitutional principles, but, instead of accepting them sincerely, merely tried to use them as a cloak for home-grown absolutism. An advisory assembly (the verstärkte Reichsrat) was summoned (March, 1860), and after an interval of seven months the so-called October Diploma was proclaimed. In it the new constitution was proclaimed as a "lasting and irrevocable constitution of the Empire," but this "lasting and irrevocable "law was changed by Francis Joseph as early as 26th February, 1861! The October Diploma was founded on the federative principle, the constitution of 1861 on the centralist principle. It was Schmerling who became the leader of the centralist constitutional party of the Germans, whereas the Czechs, the Poles and the other non-German nations advocated the principle of federation. The Magyars adopted a policy of abstention and declined to attend the imperial Parliament in Vienna.

The war against Denmark in 1864 showed that Austria had her interest concentrated upon Germany, but the conflict of internal political forces in the Empire pushed towards a solution; absolutism and federalism were the two great conflicting principles exhausting the Empire. Francis Joseph, in his blindness, still clung to the former. In 1865 the constitution was suspended, and there followed what is known as the epoch of Sistierung, by which word the reintroduction of absolutism is designated. But the year 1866 not only forced Austria to withdraw from Germany and to acknowledge the supremacy of Prussia, but wrung from the Emperor himself the admission that the crude Metternich system could not prevail any longer, and he consented to its mitigation. By making that concession he proved himself to be not so much a strong character as a shortsighted egotist, endeavouring to meet modern exigencies by half measures; the history of the unhappy General Benedek shows with what absolute coolness he could sacrifice his most devoted servants to reckless dynastic speculation. Venice was lost, and, in that way, Austria reduced to its present boundaries. In this dangerous situation the loyal supporters of Austria advised the Emperor to restore harmony among the Austrian nationalities; it would have been natural that Austria, under some new form, should restore the original confederation of Germany. Bohemia and Hungary, but absolutism was too deep-rooted in the Habsburgs, and so Francis Joseph followed the old principle of divide et impera, and came to an agreement with the Magyars. The Dual system was introduced, and, since 1867, Austria has been Austria-Hungary; the German minority was to exercise hegemony in Austria, and the Magyar minority in Hungary. Against this disloyal plot of Vienna and Budapest the Czechs protested vigorously. In the year of the creation of Dualism, Palacky, Dr. Rieger and other Czech leaders, visited the Moscow exhibition; in fact, it was a political demonstration of Slav national policy against Habsburg absolutism. In the following year the Czechs proclaimed their famous "Declaration" of national and political rights; Vienna answered with fierce repression in the Bohemian countries, but she could not prevail against the united determination of the Czechs, and Francis Joseph was obliged to negotiate with them. Count Hohenwart was placed at the head of the Ministry of Agreement. The Emperor sent to the Diet of Prague (12th September, 1871) a "Rescript," in which be fully acknowledged the legal position of the Crown of Bohemia ("We are glad to acknowledge the rights of this kingdom, and are ready to renew this acknowledgment with our Coronation Oath"); but the influence of Berlin and Budapest frustrated this agreement, and after a lapse of some months, even weeks. Francis Joseph degraded his imperial word to a "scrap of paper." The repression in Bohemia was renewed with unprecedented fierceness, but the Czechs did not falter.

Meanwhile the effects of the revived Prusso-German Empire made themselves felt in Austria. The Austrian Germans, Vienna itself, even the "dumme Kerl" of Vienna, came to accept Pangerman ideals; the Magyars joined the Pangermans in the hope of forcing Vienna to yield to their aspirations, whereas the Czechs, true to their national and Slav programme, solemnly protested against the new German Empire and the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine. It was the only protest in Europe! Count Andrassy came to a complete agreement with Bismarck. Bismarck was shrewd enough to induce Francis Joseph to conclude a close alliance with Germany, to which Italy was added a few years later; at the same time he secured his own position by a secret agreement with Russia, but Austria-Hungary proceeded in her anti-Slav policy, which was to lead inevitably to a rupture with Russia. Austria-Hungary had not dared to attack Russia openly, but, in 1878, Bosnia and Herzegovina were occupied, and Serbia, under King Milan, forced into a policy of abject vassalage.

In internal policy Vienna had to yield to some extent to Bohemia. Count Taaffe, who was of Irish descent, came to an agreement with the Czechs, as a result of which they abandoned their so-called "passive policy," which had consisted in boycotting the central Parliament of Vienna. In the year 1879 the Czechs took their seats in Parliament, and since that time Vienna, by small concessions, has tried to win the Bohemian nation. This endeavour seemed the more necessary, as in Vienna itself the Clerical leader, Dr. Lueger, had found many adherents in his opposition to Magyar predominance. Hungary, it must be remembered, when united with Austria and Bohemia in 1526, had fallen into Turkish hands, and it was only at the end of the seventeenth century that she was liberated by their joint efforts. By the middle of the nineteenth century, when her influence began to grow, Austria and Bohemia had become industrialised, and Hungary served as their granary. Hungary's economic strength first became manifest in the revolution of 1848. The introduction of Dualism, and their subservience to Berlin and its Pangerman policy, strengthened the Magyars; Dr. Lueger opposed Hungary by adopting the old centralist programme of a united and therefore "Greater Austria." In Bohemia the party of the Old Czechs, who had concluded the agreement with Taaffe, was repudiated by the nation at the elections in 1889 to the Diet of Prague, and in 1891 to the Viennese Parliament. The Young Czech party, with whom victory rested, were the representatives of the more radical national and democratic Bohemian movement, which was to culminate in the truly Austrian policy of martial law. The Emperor tried to win over Bohemia, and it was the Pole, Count Badeni, who issued a decree restoring to some extent the rights of the Czech language. The Germans began in Parliament their policy of obstruction, and Badeni had soon to be discarded; four Cabinets followed in quick succession, and under the last, that of Dr. von Koerber (to-day again Austrian Premier), the Emperor capitulated before the Germans; piece by piece Badeni's decree has been plucked to pieces and finally abolished altogether.

The Emperor and his counsellors found a new expedient to evade the solution of the national and, above all, of the Bohemian problems; political attention was diverted to social problems, and it was calculated that the working classes would make short work of the national movement. The Russian revolution had a strong repercussion in Bohemia and Austria, whose growing industrialisation brought to the front a strong socialist party, and Vienna advised the introduction of universal suffrage, hoping that social antagonism would supersede national antagonism. But apart from the fact that universal suffrage in Austria was very artificial, securing to the German minority its artificial majority in the Parliament, the national dissensions could not be weakened; not only in Austria but in Hungary also the absolutist rule of the minority caused a collapse of constitutionalism. Francis Joseph thought that universal suffrage would weaken Magyar absolutism and appease the Slavs; Kristófy promised to introduce universal suffrage in Hungary, but it was not the first time that an imperial promise had not been kept. After the long and futile interlude of the Coalition, the reckless Count Tisza became the dictator of Hungary.

Being weakened at home, Austria-Hungary tried to gain some prestige by her foreign policy. The occupied provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina were annexed, with an entire disregard of the stipulations of the Berlin Congress. In order to convince Europe of the necessity for so high-handed an act, and to alarm her with a trumped-up story of a revolutionary Panslav movement among the Southern Slavs, documents were forged at the legation of Belgrade; but the Friedjung trial exposed Austria's Machiavellian methods in the face of all Europe. An Austrophil historian of the Balkan policy of Austria-Hungary—Theodor von Sosnosky—is bound to accept the English view of Mr. Seton-Watson that, in any other country, Count Aehrenthal would not have remained at his post twenty-four hours after these forgeries had been publicly disclosed in the Austrian Delegation. But Francis Joseph created Baron Aehrenthal Count, and insisted upon his retaining office. The annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina was soon followed by the Balkan War, and Turkey, the protégé and ally of Austria and Germany, defeated. The war of 1914 is the continuation of the Balkan wars. Germany, through her Austro-Hungarian vanguard, is trying to become an Asiatic Power, and to secure the land route to Africa. Francis Joseph accepted this Prussian policy, lulled by the personal cajolery of William, who pretended to venerate him as the wise leader, not only of Austria-Hungary and Germany, but of all Europe (one recalls, for instance, the theatrical presentation of the German Confederate Princes in the Hofburg on the Emperor's name-day). Francis Joseph, ever since his accession, has been blinded by the inveterate imperialism of the House of Habsburg, and this infatuation makes him responsible for the present war. Defeated twice by the Russians, and even by the despised Serbians, the army of Francis Joseph surrendered to the Prussian generals, and he himself became the mere vassal of Berlin.

It would have required a man of strong and manly character on the Austro-Hungarian throne to inaugurate a sound national and democratic policy such as would secure the free development of the nations composing Austria-Hungary. Austria had a function, a raison d'étre as a European vanguard against the Turks; as soon as the Turks became innocuous Austria would have acquired a fresh right to existence if she had honestly tried to be the leader of the various nations. Austria could have anticipated the future of Europe, being, indeed, with her motley nationalities. a kind of miniature Europe. That would have involved acting according to that golden rule of princes, affixed in bronze to a statue which Francis Joseph daily could read from the windows of his palace: Justitia regnorum fundamentum! But Francis Joseph had no plan of positive leadership; he was not just; drift, not mastery, was his essential characteristic as Emperor and as man. In spite of his passivity, Austria-Hungary, since 1848, had been progressing; but this progress was due to the growth of the population and to the economic changes caused by close interdependence with Western Europe; the growing army and navy and the exigencies of a complicated administration involved heavy taxation, and Francis Joseph was clever enough not to check the economic development. His passivity sometimes made it possible for some abler men in the Government to create institutions and to pass laws which, in themselves, were reasonable and good, and thus the Austrian constitution contains some good and progressive elements, but a brutal and regardless administration frustrated the best laws, and a Governmental decree could circumvent both law and legal custom. Owing to this absence of all positive or constructive rule, Austria and Hungary under Francis Joseph degenerated into a system of conscious violence, securing to the German and Magyar minorities an outrageous domination. Upon this ruling minority, as upon its master, lies the responsibility for this war, abhorred and detested by the other nations. A neutral diplomatist in Rome is credited with the assertion that, since the beginning of the war, more than 80,000 persons—civilians and military—have been executed in Austria and Hungary, in Bohemia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Dalmatia, and in the Trentino, in Serbia and Montenegro. It is to be hoped that the true figures have been exaggerated; but, even at the best, the war is not only a war against the Allies but against the majority of their own nations. Francis Joseph was neither kind nor generous, nor was he ever noble, reliable, or true, however the paid eulogist may insist upon such qualities. Since the execution of the Hungarian generals in Arad (the carrying out of the sentence was actually postponed to the 6th of October in order to avenge the death of Count Latour, whom the mob had hanged on the same day of the previous year), Francis Joseph sanctioned many political acts of brutal vengeance and flagrant injustice; the condemnation and sentence to death of the Bohemian leaders during the war were merely the latest deed of this kind. Francis Joseph is a warning example of the perils of monarchism—of the gross immorality of unrestricted absolutism masquerading under modern constitutional and parliamentary forms in order to hide its own nakedness. Francis Joseph's numerous adulators extol his aristocratic nature; but he was only an aristocrat in the sense of Mickiewicz's dictum, that Austria is an East Indian Company exploited by two hundred families. The rigid rule of Spanish etiquette was the only law which was accepted by the Austrian Emperor. He abhorred democracy, for democracy means publicity, and publicity was not tolerated in Vienna—though, of course, the Viennese bourgeoisie and the Bourse rejoiced in court gossip. Francis Joseph dreaded, above all, éclat; when Baron Dumba and his officials had to leave Washington because of his alleged dishonest plots and intrigues, Austria-Hungary urged the United States to put forward illness as its official explanation of the change. That is the true Austria-Hungary of Francis Joseph. Outward appearance, not intrinsic virtue and reality, was, and is, the aim of all Austro-Hungarian policy.

Of the man, the husband, the father, the head of a great family, I do not speak. Not even the pungent phrases of a Tacitus could do justice to the theme of Habsburg degeneration.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.

The author died in 1937, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.