This Week in History

The Fall of Metternich: March 13, 1848

Revolutionary students in the streets of Vienna, March 1848

In only a few days, Kossuth’s speech to the Hungarian Diet made its way the 50 or so miles from Pressburg to Vienna. There it was copied and spread around the city. News of the Paris revolution had already created much excitement among students of the University of Vienna, and now Kossuth’s speech worked like a call to battle. Reform not only of Hungary, but of all Austria! Constitutional government! Religious freedom! Students were ready to take up arms to force Austria and her Habsburg rulers at long last to enter the 19th century.

It was March 13, 1848. Delegates representing the people of Lower Austria had been summoned to meet in Vienna. They were gathering in their assembly hall, the Landhaus, when they heard from outside a rumbling of voices. An immense crowd of students and poor workingmen had surrounded the Landhaus. A student had been proclaiming Kossuth’s speech to the great, enthusiastic mob. The delegates could hear the angry cries — “Down with Metternich! Down with Metternich!”

Metternich in old age

The delegates agreed to admit six students and six townsmen from the crowd into the Landhaus. After the students and townsmen entered the hall, a rumor that the 12 had been arrested and troops had been summoned spread through the crowd. Infuriated, the multitude of students and townsmen burst into the Landhaus and threatened the delegates until they agreed to send a deputation to the emperor. Crying, “Down with Metternich!” the immense mob surged through the streets to Vienna’s castle, the Hofburg, where Metternich himself was holding a meeting of the Austrian ministers, the Council of State.

The proud Prince Metternich first met the news of the uprising with disdain. The man who had faced off with Napoleon Bonaparte could not be frightened by an unruly crowd of students and ragged townsmen. He thought the whole thing merely a street riot. Despite reports that the students were arming, Metternich thought he could handle matters as he always had. He would give in just a little to one of the students’ demands and ignore the rest. He excused himself from the Council of State and went into another room to write up a decree granting freedom for the press.

Meanwhile, the violence had spread to the suburbs. Working men left their jobs, burned down government buildings, broke into bakers’ and butchers’ shops, and destroyed machines. The mobs then began converging on the center of the city. At the Landhaus, soldiers had fired on the crowd, who then began erecting barricades to defend themselves.

Cartoon mocking Metternich’s flight from Vienna, March 1848

While he drew up his decree, Metternich could hear the ministers’ discussion from the adjoining room. Representatives of the growing crowd outside had been admitted, and one of them was demanding the prince’s resignation. Metternich heard all this — but where, he wondered, were the voices defending him? No one in the next room spoke up in his favor, and he finally understood that his time had come. He reentered the room where the Council of State and the peoples’ representatives were gathered. With courage and dignity, Metternich declared that he had always worked for the emperor’s good and that, if the emperor’s cause demanded it, he would resign.

So fell Prince Metternich, the victim of what he hated most and spent his long life fighting — revolution. With his house sacked by rioters, he fled Vienna, and Austria, for England. The man who for 33 years had been Liberalism’s greatest enemy was now just another exiled prince in London.

But Metternich regretted nothing he had done. Four years after he fled Vienna, he said this of his life’s work: “If I had to begin my career again, I would follow again the course I took before and would not deviate from it for an instant.”

 

Folk Music from Old Austria

This is a performance of German folk music from the region called Styria (or Steierland) in southeastern Austria, performed by Hermann Haertel, violin, and Simon Wascher, hurdy-gurdy. It represents one strand of the rich folk culture of Austria.