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A New Government for Germany and Austria’s Defiance: May 18, 20, 1848

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World. Read other account of the 1848 revolutions here and here.

On March 14, 1848, the day following Metternich’s resignation, the [Austrian] government agreed to form a National Guard — which, like the Paris National Guard during the French Revolution, would be entirely under the control of the revolutionaries. The next day, the government suggested forming a central committee of all the local diets in the empire, but this did not please the revolutionaries. Nor did they like a constitution the Council of State suggested in late April, because it gave the imperial government too much control over the making of laws.

Ferdinand I, Emperor of Austria (also king of Hungary, Bohemia, and Lombardy-Venetia)

Impatient with the government, students and national guardsmen began forming revolutionary committees. On May 15, 1848, these committees joined to form a Central Committee to organize all revolutionary activities and to direct the city government of Vienna. The Council of State at first refused to recognize the revolutionary committee; but when students and workers again took to rioting, the ministers gave in. They recognized the Central Committee as legal and agreed to call a National Convention or Reichsrat (imperial assembly) to draw up a constitution for all of the Austrian Empire, except Hungary and Lombardy-Venezia. Delegates to the Reichsrat would be elected by universal manhood suffrage.

Franz Freiherr (Baron) von Pillersdorf

Two days later, Emperor Ferdinand I left Vienna — “for the benefit of his health,” it was announced. But on May 20, a proclamation issued from Innsbruck in the emperor’s name called on all faithful provinces to rise in his defense against the revolutionaries. The proclamation inspired faithful Austrians, but it angered the Viennese revolutionaries. On May 26 they again rose in revolt, and the Council of State was forced to give the revolutionary Central Committee control of the treasury and to turn over the policing of the city to a newly created revolutionary group, called the Committee of Public Safety.

The fall of Metternich and Friedrich Wilhelm’s surrender to the forces of Liberalism occurred at a time when Liberal movements were active throughout southern Germany. In some places, representatives of the Liberal middle class were able to form governments. But the greatest triumph of the Liberals was the establishment of a new parliament to represent all of Germany.

As we saw in Chapter 9, following the Congress of Vienna, the German states had been formed into a loose union called the German Confederation. The confederation was governed by a diet, called the Bundestag, made up of representatives of the various German states. This diet, however, had been dominated by Austria, which could halt any Liberal reforms that might pass through it.

In early March 1848, Liberal politicians and Bundestag deputies had met in Heidelberg and called for a meeting of representatives to form a new national assembly for all of Germany. Elections were held and on May 18, 1848, the new assembly gathered in the city of Frankfurt am Main. The Bundestag, which had supported the elections and the new assembly, then disbanded.

The Frankfurt Diet meets in Paulskirche in Frankfurt am Main, May 1848

The over 800 delegates who formed the new Frankfurt Diet came mostly from the educated middle class; they were government officials, judges, prosecutors, and university professors. (One of the professors was Jakob Grimm, the compiler of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.) Few of the deputies were middle-class businessmen, and even fewer represented farmers or tradesmen. The delegates, too, were deeply divided on a number of questions, including whether to establish a constitutional monarchy for all of Germany or a republic.

But a more important question for the delegates was, what lands should be included in Germany? Should Austria? And if it should, should also the non- German parts of Austria (Bohemia, for instance, or Polish Galicia) be made part of Germany? Such subjects were the theme of many long-winded speeches by parliamentary deputies.

Germany in 1848. “Königreich Preußen” is Prussia. “Kaiserreich Österreich,” is Austria

Neither the Austrian emperor nor the Prussian king could do anything about the Frankfurt Diet. King Friedrich Wilhelm IV was busy with his own parliamentary assembly for Prussia and at least had to pretend he favored Liberal reforms. In Innsbruck, the Austrian Emperor Ferdinand I and his government faced not only rebellion in Vienna and war in Italy, but a new uprising that had broken out among the Czechs in Prague. In Hungary, the Pressburg Diet had adopted the Ten Points, which made the kingdom of Hungary almost entirely independent of Austria. Hungary’s only link now with Austria was that Ferdinand I was still her king.

An Austrian Military March

This piece, the “Radetzky March,” composed by Johann Strauss Senior in 1848, takes its name from Count Josef Radetzky von Radetz, the commander of the Austrian army that was attempting to put down the revolution in Lombardy.

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