This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World.
The revolutionaries in Vienna cheered when they heard of Radetzky’s victories in Lombardy. Why did they cheer? After all, Radetzky’s enemies should have been their friends. Both the Viennese and Lombard revolutionaries were Liberals. Both battled what they thought was tyranny. Yet the Viennese radicals welcomed the news of Radetzky’s victories. Why?
The answer is simple. The Viennese revolutionaries were Liberals, but they were also nationalists. They cheered Radetzky, for he had led German and Austrian arms in triumph over people of a different nation. The success of Liberal ideals meant less to the Viennese insurgents than their nation’s glory.
Such nationalism could be found as well in the German and Hungarian diets. The German and Magyar Liberals wanted liberty and citizen rights for themselves, but not necessarily for other nationalities. Kossuth fought for Magyars but wanted to keep down the Slav minorities in Hungary. This only alienated the Slavs from the cause of Hungarian independence. The Viennese revolutionaries also alienated the Slavs by cheering the news that in June the imperial Austrian army under Alfred, Prince zu Windischgrätz, had crushed the Czech revolution in Prague.
Such nationalism only pushed the Slavs toward the emperor. The Croats, a southern Slav people who lived in several provinces on the Adriatic coast, had long wanted independence from Hungary. Under the leadership of the nobleman Josip Jelačić and the Sabor (the Croatian national assembly), the Croatians demanded the union of all Croatian provinces, full civil rights, and the abolition of serfdom. In April 1848, Jelačić, the commander of Habsburg troops in Croatia, proclaimed Croatia’s independence from Hungary, but not from the Habsburg emperor. In August, he accused the Hungarian government of wanting to dismantle the Austrian Empire and once again proclaimed his allegiance to the House of Habsburg. In September, he led an army of 55,000 men across the Drava River in an invasion of Hungary.
German nationalism also weakened the cause of the Viennese revolutionaries. When the Austrian Reichsrat met at Vienna in July, about half of its delegates were Slavs. Discussions over what sort of constitution the empire should have and the place of the Slavs in the empire dragged on and on and went nowhere. The Reichsrat, made up of mostly bourgeois members and a smaller number of mostly well-to-do peasants, was also more conservative than the Viennese revolutionary workers and students. The Reichsrat showed its conservatism when it invited the emperor to return to Vienna; and the emperor, confident that the Reichsrat would do him no harm, entered the capital on August 12, 1848.
The only lasting achievement of the Austrian Reichsrat of 1848 was a law abolishing a land tax peasants had been forced to pay. (In April, Emperor Ferdinand had issued a decree abolishing all land taxes paid by peasants.) With the passage of this law, the peasants lost interest in the revolution. They had never been very interested in democratic and socialist ideas; and now that their chief demand had been fulfilled, they turned again to the emperor and the established ways of old Austria.
A March for a Faithful Imperialist
An all-cello performance of the Jelačić March, by Johann Strauss, Sr.