It was the union of the agrarian with the nationalist movements that made the downfall of the Austrian system inevitable.
The material for the conflagration in Austria was thus all Revolutions of 1848. prepared when in February 1848 the fall of Louis Philippe fanned into a blaze the smouldering fires of revolution throughout Europe. On the 3rd of March, Kossuth, in the diet at Pressburg, delivered the famous speech which was the declaration of war of Hungarian Liberalism against the Austrian system. "From the charnel-house of the Vienna cabinet," he exclaimed, "a pestilential air breathes on us, which dulls our nerves and paralyses the flight of our spirit." Hungary liberated was to become the centre of freedom for all the races under the Austrian crown, and the outcome was to be a new "fraternization of the Austrian peoples." In the enthusiasm of the moment the crucial question of the position to be occupied by the conflicting nationalities in this "fraternal union" was overlooked. Germanism had so far served as the basis of the Austrian system, not as a national ideal, but because "it formed a sort of unnational mediating, and common element among the contradictory and clamorous racial tendencies." But with the growth of the idea of German unity, Germanism had established a new ideal, of which the centre lay beyond the boundaries of the Austrian monarchy, and which was bound to be antagonistic to the aspirations of other races.
The new doctrine of the fraternization of the Austrian races would inevitably soon come into conflict with the traditional German ascendancy strengthened by the new sentiment of a united Germany. It was on this rock that, both in Austria and in Germany, the revolution suffered shipwreck.
Meanwhile events progressed rapidly. On the 11th of March a meeting of "young Czechs" at Prague drew up a petition embodying nationalist and liberal demands; and on the same day the diet of Lower Austria petitioned the crown to summon a meeting of the delegates of the diets to set the Austrian finances in order. To this last proposal the government, next day, gave its consent. But in the actual temper of the Viennese the slightest concession was dangerous. The hall of the diet was invaded by a mob of students and workmen, Kossuth's speech was read and its proposals adopted as the popular programme, and the members of the diet were forced to lead a tumultuous procession to the Hofburg, to force the assent of the government to a petition based on the catch-words of the Revolution. Fall of Metternich, March 13, 1848. The authorities, taken by surprise, were forced to temporize and agreed to lay the petition before the emperor. Meanwhile round the hall of the diet a riot had broken out; the soldiers intervened and blood was shed. The middle classes now joined the rebels; and the riots had become a revolution.
Threatened by the violence of the mob, Metternich, on the evening of the 13th of March, escaped from the Hofburg and passed into exile in England.
The fall of Metternich was the signal for the outburst of the storm, not in Austria only, but throughout central Europe. In Hungary, on the 31st of March, the government was forced to consent to a new constitution which virtually erected Hungary into an independent state. On the 8th of April a separate constitution was promised to Bohemia; and if the petition of the Croats for a similar concession was rejected, this was due to the armed mob of Vienna, which was in close alliance with Kossuth and the Magyars. The impotence of the Austrian government in this crisis was due to the necessity of keeping the bulk of the Austrian forces in Italy, where the news of Metternich's fall had also led to a concerted rising against the Habsburg rule (see Italy). Upon the fortunes of war in the peninsula depended the ultimate issue of the revolutions so far as Austria was concerned.
The army and the prestige of the imperial tradition were, in fact, the two sheet-anchors that enabled the Habsburg monarchy to weather the storm. For the time the latter was the only one available; but it proved invaluable, especially in Germany, in preventing any settlement, until Radetzky's victory of Novara had set free the army, and thus once more enabled Austria to back her policy by force. The Austrian government, in no position to refuse, had consented to send delegates from its German provinces to the parliament of united Germany, which met at Frankfort on the 18th of May 1848. The question at once arose of the place of the Austrian monarchy in united Germany. Were only its German provinces to be included? Or was it to be incorporated whole? As to the first, the Austrian government would not listen to the suggestion of a settlement which would have split the monarchy in half and subjected it to a double allegiance. As to the second, German patriots could not stomach the inclusion in Germany of a vast non-German population.
The dilemma was from the first so obvious that the parliament would have done well to have recognized at once that the only possible solution was that arrived at, after the withdrawal of the Austrian delegates, by the exclusion of Austria altogether and the offer of the crown of Germany to Frederick William of Prussia. But the shadow of the Holy Empire, immemorially associated with the house of Habsburg, still darkened the counsels of German statesmen. The Austrian archduke John had been appointed regent, pending the election of an emperor; and the political leaders could neither break loose from the tradition of Austrian hegemony, nor reconcile themselves with the idea of a mutilated Germany, till it was too late, and Austria was once more in a position to re-establish the system devised by her diplomacy at the congress of Vienna. (See Germany: History.)
This fatal procrastination was perhaps not without excuse, in view of the critical situation of the Austrian monarchy during 1848. For months after the fall of Metternich Austria was practically without a central government. Vienna itself, where on the 14th of March the establishment of a National Guard was authorized by the emperor, was ruled by a committee of students and citizens, who arrogated to themselves a voice in imperial affairs, and imposed their will on the distracted ministry. On the 15th of March the government proposed to summon a central committee of local diets; but this was far from satisfying public opinion, and on the 25th of April a constitution was proclaimed, including the whole monarchy with the exception of Hungary and Lombardo-Venetia. This was, however, met by vigorous protests from Czechs and Poles, while its provisions for a partly nominated senate, and the indirect election of deputies, excited the wrath of radical Vienna. Committees of students and national guards were formed; on the 13th of May a Central Committee was established; and on the 15th a fresh insurrection broke out, as a result of which the government once more yielded, recognizing the Central Committee, admitting the right of the National Guard to take an active part in politics, and promising the convocation of a National Convention on the basis of a single chamber elected by universal suffrage.