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March Revolution in Vienna

March Revolution in Vienna Against the background of the February revolution in Paris, Lajos Kossuth's speech in the Hungarian parliament in Bratislava (Pressburg) delivered on March 3, 1848 gave the signal for the beginning of the revolutionary movement; he heavily attacked Metternich's ruling system and raised demands for liberal reforms and a constitution for the Habsburg monarchy as well as the establishment of a responsible ministry in Hungary. The motivation for the movement in the Danubian metropolis sparked by Kossuth's address also included the so-called "liberal" opposition from within the Austrian estates (Stände) as well as in the bureaucratic-political reading society, an organization drawing on bourgeois-progressive forces. The main demand was to create from the estates of the empire, a general estates with legislative competence for the entire Austrian Empire. In addition the aspiration for revocation of press censorship and for freedom of trade played an important role. But the opposition only gained an important magnitude when the students joined the political movement and on March 12 in a meeting in the main university lecture hall passed a resolution which was immediately sent to the court (Hofburg); the students demanded freedom of the press, academic freedom, freedom of religion, arming the people, and the reform of the German Confederation.

The rigidly conservative forces dominated the Hapsburg court. Metternich, who was completely taken by surprise by revolutionary events in Europe, and the circle around Archduke Ludwig, vicar for the feeble-minded Emperor Ferdinand I, resisted granting the reforms, whereas a dynastic fronde consisting of Archduchess Sophie, mother of the heir apparent Franz Joseph, and a few older archdukes, were prepared to allow concessions. On March 13, events compelled a decision. Thousands of persons full of high hopes, among them a great number of students, gathered before the house of estates (Standehaus) in Herrengasse on the occasion of the opening session of the Lower Austria Landtag(legislature), supported the demands of the opposition on the government which speakers made public. Mistrust of the estates's willingness to grant reforms and the rumors led to the storming of the house of estates. Under the pressure of the crowd, the Landtag was forced to send a delegation to the court.

After initial minor clashes with the military, the troops received the order to clear the streets and open spaces. Before the house of the estates soldiers opened fire on demonstrators. The crowd defended itself with stones and then began to erect barricades. As ever more students, artisans, and workers joined the uprising, the soldiers, whose ranks included artillerymen and Italian grenadiers who fired over the heads of insurgents, were incapable of keeping the situation under control.

In the afternoon the uprising extended to the plebeian-proletarian population in the suburbs. There they lay down theirwork, set fire to excise houses and shops, stormed bakers' and butcher's shops, destroyed machines in several factories, and began to march to the center of the city. Before communal authorities could order closing of city gates, several hundred workers managed to gain entry.

Although the propertied bourgeoisie feared and rejected the overwhelmingly socially oriented actions taken by the plebeian strata, they supported the main political objectives of the uprising. The most powerful pressure was exerted by the civic guard, a kind of militia who, like the estate deputies and the university professors, had addressed a petition of their own to the state leadership. Their delegation delivered an ultimatum demanding the Metternich's dismissal, the withdrawal of troops from the city, the arming of students. In the event of a non-compliance with their demands they threatened to refuse to help maintain law and order.

Ultimately there was a turn of events in the evening hours: continuing violence in the suburbs, assaults on public buildings, and burning of escaped gas from destroyed pipes. At the court the faction willing to make concessions gained the upper hand. Thus Metternich's fate was sealed. Shortly before the expiration of the civic guard's ultimatum the Austrian chancellor, symbolic figure of pre-March (Vormärz) European reaction, had to resign. At the same time the withdrawal of troops was ordered; with the permission to arm the students, the "Academic Legion" emerged, an essential component of the Viennese revolution.

On March 14, the uprising proceeded. A popular assembly in the court riding school insisted on the fulfillment of further demands: the formation of a national guard, freedom of the press and the introduction of a constitution. Popular wrath was fueled by the news of the appointment as the supreme commander of the troops of Prince von Windischgrätz, who was infamous for his brutality. Insurgents attempted to force their way into armories in an effort to arm themselves. A crowd besieged the imperial Hofburg and several revolutionaries considered taking it by storm. Given the pronounced dynastic sentiments of the Viennese and the popularity of the emperor there were no republican tendencies; however, the rulers were seized with fear for the continued existence of the monarchy. Therefore, new concessions were made: the abolition of censorship and establishment of a national guard under the command of an imperial general. despite Windischgrätz's strong opposition. But the council of state, the supreme governing organ, refused to grant a constitution.

In the night of March 15, in the Hofburg, plans were considered to put down the revolution with military force. Windischgrätz was prepared to impose a state of siege on Vienna, but in view of many imponderable aspects he believed only short-term success for this measure. Thus no attempt at a counter-revolutionary blow was undertaken and chose the path of seeking an understanding. On March 15, an imperial manifesto announced in rather involved language the decision to give up the absolutist system of government and to introduce a constitution in Austria. Thus the revolution had achieved all its aspired aims.

The new ministry established on March 20 under Count von Kolowrat remained a bastion of feudal-bureaucratic forces; it included no representatives of the oppositional bourgeoisie, in contrast to the March cabinets in other German lands. In Vienna, municipal administration was transferred to a twenty-four head city council.
Rolf Weber translated by James Chastain


Rudolf Kiszling Die Revolution im Kaisertum Österreich 1848-1849, Vienna 1948, 2 vols.

Alexander Novotny 1848. Österreichs Ringen um Freiheit und Volksfrieden Graz 1848.

Wolfgang Häusler Von der Massenarmut zur Arbeitbe wegung: Demokratie und soziale Frage in der Wiener Revolution von 1848 Vienna 1979.

Ernst Bruchmüller Sozialgeschichte Österreichs Vienna-Munich, 1985.

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