The New Europe/Volume 3/The Opening of the Austrian Reichsrat

3878530The New Europe, vol. III, no. 34 — The Opening of the Austrian Reichsrat1917Rubicon

The Opening of the Austrian Reichsrat

The Parliamentary plant does not flourish in war, but the representative bodies of the various belligerents have played an essential part in providing that moral sanction without which the struggle could not have been prolonged. There has been one notorious exception. The Austrian Parliament, which had been prorogued in March, 1914, owing to internal difficulties, was not allowed to reassemble in the critical days which decided the issues of war, and has been left in abeyance for three whole years as the result of a settled policy on the part of the late Emperor and the army chiefs. Since the beginning of the century the theory of civil liberty was—so far, as least, as the German provinces of Austria were concerned—slowly establishing itself in practice, although the bureaucracy had a score of subtle means by which public opinion could be rendered inarticulate and powerless. At the outbreak of war civil liberty was destroyed as by a stroke of the pen; the jury system was suspended, and the whole judicial machinery of the State became, in effect, subordinate to the wishes of the high military command. The Press was muzzled even more effectually than in other countries, and the one safety-valve which had always hitherto been at the disposal of the public, namely, the absolute immunity of all speeches delivered in Parliament, fell into disuse owing to the suspension of Parliamentary life. Meanwhile the contrast between the two halves of the Dual Monarchy was accentuated still further by the fact that the Hungarian Parliament was free to deliberate as usual.

The reason for this contrast is obvious enough. The Parliament of Budapest, resting upon a corrupt and superannuated franchise, is entirely oligarchic in its composition. In Hungary the working classes, the Magyar peasantry and the ten millions of non-Magyars, are almost entirely unrepresented; and thus the House could be relied upon to voice the wishes of those responsible for the war. In Austria, on the other hand, universal suffrage has been in force since 1907, and though it has by no means fulfilled the expectations of its sponsors, it has made it impossible entirely to suppress the views of any section of the population. Thus Count Stürgkh, the late Premier, was faced by the alternative of allowing the strong hostility of the Austrian Slavs to the Government’s war policy to find public expression in Parliament or of dispensing altogether with the latter’s services. Encouraged by the approval of Berlin and Budapest, he chose the latter course. He persisted in it for a while until the indignation of the masses at a 7dgime whose sluggish incompetence threw even its illegality into the shade prompted Friedrich Adler last November to adopt the weapon of political assassination. The new reign has brought new men to the front, and the Emperor Charles and his two chief advisers, Counts Czernin and Clam-Martinic, are fully aware of the vital need for lubricating the clogged machinery of State. Like the late Archduke Francis Ferdinand, they are known to favour reconstruction on Centralist lines, combined with such extension of local racial autonomy as is associated with the phrase of “Trialism.” Unfortunately, any pious aspirations towards a change of system are fatally handicapped by opposition from three quarters : from the German Austrians, who are determined to prevent all concessions to the Slavs, and from Budapest and Berlin, which are equally interested in upholding the existing Dualism, and thereby bolding Vienna in their thrall.

To some extent the Russian Revolution came to the help of the new men. Even the earlier upheaval of 1905 in Petrograd had reverberated throughout Austria and Hungary, and was directly responsible for the movement for universal suffrage. It was thus apparent that, quite apart from its effects upon the Austrian Slavs, the successful revolution of last March was bound to exercise a profound influence throughout the Monarchy. It was also obvious that there was no chance of successful negotiations with the new Russian democracy so long as the autocratic and unparliamentary régime of the past three years survived in Austria. Hence the extreme programme of Germanisation accepted by the late Emperor shortly before his death—the imposition of German as the language of State, drastic reforms of Parliamentary Standing Orders, and the exclusion of Galicia, all three measures to be passed by arbitrary decree previous to the summons of Parliament—was definitely dropped, and Parliament was summoned for 30 May. This caused great alarm among the German parties, most of whom were undisguisedly hostile to the Reichsrat being summoned at all; and the two German ministers, Mr. Urban and Dr. Baernreither, could only be induced to remain in the Cabinet in return for explicit assurances from the Emperor’s own mouth that the position of the Germans would in no way be prejudiced.

Nothing has happened during May to suggest any approach to a Slavophile standpoint on the part of the Austrian Government; this is clearly indicated by the way in which the sixty vacancies in the Upper House have been filled. The list includes a number of the Austrian generals and ex-diplomats (among others, the notorious Dr. Dumba); while of the politicians selected almost all are uncompromising in their support of the old régime. Specially marked is the inclusion of Herr Benedikt, the proprietor and editor of the Neue Freie Presse, who for a generation past has exploited the unique position of one of the most brilliant Continental newspapers to the cause of Le Roi de Prusse and the Dual System, and has done more than any other living man to accentuate the feud between German and Slav, and to maintain the alliance of German and Magyar at the expense of the Slav.

The German parties showed themselves uncompromising from the very first, and their unanimous selection of Dr. Gross, the President of the German National Union, as their candidate for the post of Speaker was intended and accepted as a direct challenge to the Slavs. No less significant is the cordial support given to the present régime by the Radical Pangermans, who, only fifteen years ago, amid an orgy of obstruction, excelled themselves by cheering the Hohenzollerns and insulting the Habsburgs on the floor of the Reichsrat. To-day their leader, Karl Hermann Wolf, visits the Emperor at Laxenburg and his colleague, Herr Iro, writes pamphlets in favour of Mittel-Europa. A third member of their group, Herr Pacher, was specially selected as the spokesman of all the German parties during the opening debate of the session.

Among many signs that no real change of policy is intended is the significant fact that the Slav deputies who have been condemned for political offences have not been allowed to take their seats: that the Czech Radical leader, Mr. Klofač, who has now been in prison untried for nearly three years, is about to be brought before a Court: that there have been numerous fresh arrests, including a group of the leading bankers in Prague, and that fresh trials are pending against various Slav journalists. But the fact that they have been deprived of their leaders has not reduced the Czechs and Jugoslavs to silence, and only serves to emphasise still further the bold and far-reaching nature of their claims. Even so moderate a man as the ex-Minister, Dr. Fiedler—a Young Czech leader, despite his German name—has publicly associated himself with the unanimous demand of his nation for “the restoration and democratisation of Bohemia,” union with the Slovaks, and “the abolition of foreign domination.” Nor is it an accident that the Czech Clerical, Mr. Stanek, should have been selected as the spokesman of these claims in Parliament. The remarkable Czech manifestos, whose text we publish this week (see pp. 238–242), show that the whole Czech nation is united in its aspirations: and this is further confirmed by the attitude adopted by the Czech Socialist leader, Mr. Soukup, in the official party organ. He and his colleagues have publicly protested against the refusal of passports for Stockholm to any of their number, and have denounced as agents of the Government the two individuals who are masquerading there in their name. In putting forward the programme of Czecho-Slovak Union and the transformation of Austro-Hungary into a federation of free national states, the Czechs have thrown the gauntlet alike to Germans and Magyars. The former have already declared themselves irreconcilably opposed to such a programme, while the Magyar constitutional authority, Professor Kmety, voices the feelings of the latter in denouncing the Czech pronouncement as an unfriendly act to Hungary.

No details are as yet available regarding the attitude of the Southern Slav deputies: but it is already known that the Slovene Clerical, Mr. Korošec, has put forward in their name a demand for the union of all Croats, Serbs, and Slovenes in a self-governing democratic state, * free from all domination by a foreign race.” The Ruthenes of Galicia are in the same way outlining their desire for an independent Ukraine, and congratulating their brethren in Russia upon the dawn of liberty. The attitude of the Poles deserves special treatment: it is sufficient to say that after a generation of subservience to Vienna, they have now definitely passed over to the Opposition, and thus greatly added to the embarrassments of the Government.

Thus the speech from the Throne, with its vague and two-edged phrases, revealing the indecision and divided counsels which pull in two or even more opposing directions, is likely to remain a memorial of the impasse to which two generations of a refusal to think or to govern has reduced the Austrian state. The whole inner framework of the Dual Monarchy rests upon a hurriedly drafted memorandum, framed in 1867 to meet the demands of a single race, the Magyars, and the interests of their German-Austrian accomplices. The fundamental problems of the other nationalities, which that settlement ignored, have made themselves heard with growing insistence from year to year, but have been stifled or postponed by official indolence. To-day, when they can no longer be ignored, the decadence of authority and morale renders the State incapable of solving them, and there is an odour of the tomb at every turn. In Austria, too, the leaven of revolution is working, under the powerful impetus of the Russian upheaval. All the old values have been overthrown, and the atmosphere is so charged with electricity, that no human being can foretell the events of the near future.Rubicon.

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