The maintenance within the empire of a system so artificial Metternich's policy of stability. and so unsound, involved in foreign affairs the policy of preventing the success of any movements by which it might be threatened. The triumph of Liberal principles or of national aspirations in Germany, or elsewhere in Europe, might easily, as the events of 1848 proved, shatter the whole rotten structure of the Habsburg monarchy, which survived only owing to the apathy of the populations it oppressed. This, then, is the explanation of the system of "stability" which Metternich succeeded in imposing for thirty years upon Europe. If he persuaded Frederick William III. that the grant of a popular constitution would be fatal to the Prussian monarchy, this was through no love of Prussia; the Carlsbad Decrees and the Vienna Final Act were designed to keep Germany quiet, lest the sleep of Austria should be disturbed; the lofty claims of the Troppau Protocol were but to cover an Austrian aggression directed to purely Austrian ends: and in the Eastern Question, the moral support given to the "legitimate" authority of the sultan over the "rebel" Greeks was dictated solely by the interest of Austria in maintaining the integrity of Turkey. (See Europe: History; Germany: History; Alexander I. of Russia; Metternich, etc.)
Judged by the standard of its own aims Metternich's diplomacy was, on the whole, completely successful. For fifteen years after the congress of Vienna, in spite of frequent alarms, the peace of Europe was not seriously disturbed; and even in 1830, the revolution at Paris found no echo in the great body of the Austrian dominions. The isolated revolts in Italy were easily suppressed; and the insurrection of Poland, though it provoked the lively sympathy of the Magyars and Czechs, led to no actual movement in the Habsburg states. For a moment, indeed, Metternich had meditated taking advantage of the popular feeling to throw the weight of Austria into the scale in favour of the Poles, and thus, by re-establishing a Polish kingdom under Austrian influence, to restore the barrier between the two empires which the partition of Poland had destroyed. But cautious counsels prevailed, and by the victory of the Russian arms the status quo was restored (see Poland).
The years that followed were not wanting in signs of the coming Ferdinand I. 1835-1848. storm. On the 2nd of March 1835 Francis I. died, and was succeeded by his son Ferdinand I. The new emperor was personally amiable, but so enfeebled by epilepsy as to be incapable of ruling; a veiled regency had to be constituted to carry on the government, and the vices of the administration were further accentuated by weakness and divided counsels at the centre. Under these circumstances popular discontent made rapid headway. The earliest symptoms of political agitation were in Hungary, where the diet began to show signs of vigorous life, and the growing Slav separatist movements, especially in the south of the kingdom, were rousing the old spirit of Magyar ascendancy (see Hungary: History). For everywhere the Slav populations were growing restive under the German-Magyar domination. In Bohemia the Czech literary movement had developed into an organized resistance to the established order, which was attacked under the disguise of a criticism of the English administration in Ireland. "Repeal" became the watchword of Bohemian, as of Irish, nationalists (see Bohemia). Among the southern Slavs the "Illyrian" movement, voiced from 1836 onward in the Illyrian National Gazette of Ljudevit Gaj, was directed in the first instance to a somewhat shadowy Pan-Slav union, which, on the interference of the Austrian government in 1844, was exchanged for the more definite object of a revival of "the Triune Kingdom" (Croatia, Slavonia, Dalmatia) independent of the Hungarian crown (see Croatia, etc.). In the German provinces also, in spite of Metternich's censors and police, the national movements in Germany had gained an entrance, and, as the revolution of 1848 in Vienna was to show, the most advanced revolutionary views were making headway.
The most important of all the symptoms of the approaching Galician Rising, 1846. cataclysm was, however, the growing unrest among the peasants. As had been proved in France in 1789, and was again to be shown in Russia in 1906, the success of any political revolution depended ultimately upon the attitude of the peasant class. In this lies the main significance of the rising in Galicia in 1846. This was in its origin a Polish nationalist movement, hatched in the little independent republic of Cracow. As such it had little importance; though, owing to the incompetence of the Austrian commander, the Poles gained some initial successes. More fateful was the attitude of the Orthodox Ruthenian peasantry, who were divided from their Catholic Polish over-lords by centuries of religious and feudal oppression. The Poles had sought, by lavish promises, to draw them into their ranks; their reply was to rise in support of the Austrian government. In the fight at Gdow (February 26th), where Benedek laid the foundations of the military reputation that was to end so tragically at Königgrätz, flail and scythe wrought more havoc in the rebel ranks than the Austrian musketry.
Since, in spite of this object-lesson, the Polish nobles still continued their offers, the peasants consulted the local Austrian authorities as to what course they should take; and the local authorities, unaccustomed to arriving at any decision without consulting Vienna, practically gave them carte blanche to do as they liked. A hideous jacquerie followed for three or four days; during which cartloads of dead were carried into Tarnow, where the peasants received a reward for every "rebel" brought in.
This affair was not only a scandal for which the Austrian government, through its agents, was responsible; but it placed the authorities at Vienna in a serious dilemma. For the Ruthenians, elated by their victory, refused to return to work, and demanded the abolition of all feudal obligations as the reward of their loyalty. To refuse this claim would have meant the indefinite prolongation of the crisis; to concede it would have been to invite the peasantry of the whole empire to put forth similar demands on pain of a general rising. On the 13th of April 1846 an imperial decree abolished some of the more burdensome feudal obligations; but this concession was greeted with so fierce an outcry, as an authoritative endorsement of the atrocities, that it was again revoked, and Count Franz von Stadion was sent to restore order in Galicia. The result was, that the peasants saw that though their wrongs were admitted, their sole hope of redress lay in a change of government, and added the dead weight of their resentment to the forces making for revolution.