Europe Divided 1825 -1881

IN EUROPE and North America, nationalism generally led to the creation of larger states and the centralization of power. In the Austrian Empire, however, nationalism had the opposite effect; it led to the break-up of the empire and the creation of a large number of small states.

The reason was that the Austrian Empire was made up of people of different nationalities, each with its own language and customs. Although the German-speaking Austrians were only about one-fifth of the total population, the ruling family, the Hapsburgs, was Austrian and Austrians held most of the important government positions. The German-speaking people lived mainly in Austria and parts of Bohemia. The Czechs lived in Bohemia and Moravia. The majority of the people in Hungary were Magyars. The empire also included many Italians, Rumanians and Slavs. The Slavs, all of whom spoke Slavic languages, were in turn divided into Czechs, Slovaks, Poles and Yugoslavs.

The revolutions that took place in the empire in 1848 failed as the different national groups quarreled among themselves. When Vienna was retaken from the rebels, the old leaders — the army officers, the nobles, the wealthy landowners, the churchmen — knew they would regain their power, but Emperor Ferdinand had promised the people too much. He was forced to step down so that his son Francis Joseph could take the throne and Francis Joseph would not be bound by the promises made by his father.

The government then became more oppressive than ever. It did away with constitutions and took a firm stand against any form of liberalism or democracy. It called out soldiers to strike down any demonstrations of nationalism. Although the government did make some effort to improve business conditions, it was unpopular with the people.


In 1867, the two leading national groups, the German Austrians and the Hungarian Magyars, reached a compromise that changed the Austrian Empire into the double kingdom of Austria-Hungary. The old empire was divided into two almost independent states, each with its own ministers and parliament. Francis Joseph was the head of both states. He had no control over the ministers and parliament of Hungary, but he controlled the Austrian government through his right to appoint ministers. Neither state was democratic. In Hungary, the elections were so arranged as to give the Magyars almost complete control of parliament. In Austria, the parliament represented only the landowners and the wealthy. In addition, there was a third parliament with representatives from both states, but it considered only such problems as foreign affairs, military matters, import and export taxes.


The Austrian Germans and the Hungarian Magyars had little liking for each other. They entered their unusual partnership because neither felt strong enough to defend itself against its enemies. The Austrians feared that unless they had firm ties with Hungary they would be forced into Bismarck’s new Germany; the Magyars feared the Slavic peoples, including the Russians.

There were numerous groups of Slavs in both Austria and Hungary and the formation of Austria-Hungary was no comfort to them. In Hungary they had no rights at all. In Austria they did win some representation in the lower house of parliament and they were allowed to use their own languages locally, but these privileges meant little. As time went on, the Slavs became more and more bitter over their mistreatment and they began to demand independence. As a result, Austria-Hungary became a land of almost continual crisis and revolution.

East of Austria-Hungary lay Russia, a vast country that was scarcely touched at all by the movements that stirred Europe during this period. Like Austria-Hungary, Russia had many different peoples, but they were completely dominated by the Great Russians who made up more than half the total population of the country. Russia seemed to be still living in the past and to be as much Asian as it was European. An Englishman who visited Russia asked, “Is it fair to make a comparison between the Russians and European nations which have been civilized and polished for many centuries?” No, he thought, Russia had lagged too far behind the rest of Europe; its ways were too different.

Russia still had an absolute ruler, the tsar, who ruled by “divine right.” The tsar and the royal family were surrounded by the court nobles, who controlled great wealth and spent much of their time amusing themselves. Below them came the lesser nobles, a very small middle class and the serfs, who had no education and practically no rights. For that matter, there was no freedom of speech, press or religion for anyone. Speaking out against the tsar or the church was punished by imprisonment or exile in Siberia.


After Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, however, Russian officers who served in the army of occupation in France were introduced to the liberal ideas of the French revolution. They began criticizing conditions in their homeland and secret societies were organized to smuggle in books from Europe and circulate them among the people.


In 1825, some of these officers led an uprising — called the Decembrist revolt because it took place in December — calling for a constitution and other reforms. The uprising was quickly put down and its leaders hanged or sent to Siberia, but it showed that at last the ideas which had already had such a great effect on western Europe were beginning to trickle into Russia. Later, in the 1850’s, Alexander Hertzen wrote articles pointing out the faults in the Russian government. After serving a term in prison, he had left Russia for London, but his writings were smuggled into Russia and influenced many people, who agreed with Hertzen that the serfs should be freed.

When Alexander II became tsar, he allowed his subjects a little more freedom than they had had in the past. Even more important, in 1861 he did away with serfdom. Alexander II also put through other reforms, allowing a limited form of self-government at the local level and the liberals were encouraged. Then, after revolution broke out in Poland in 1863, Alexander II turned against liberal ideas. He broke the Polish revolt with armed force and used secret police and the army to guard against any sign of rebellion in Russia. This caused an upsurge of unrest. Some of his opponents became terrorists and assassinated a number of officials. Frightened, Alexander II again tried to win the support of the liberals, but in 1881, before he could accomplish much, he was himself assassinated. The new tsar, Alexander III, had no intention of carrying out any reforms, He himself used terror to keep the people firmly under control and many Russians began to believe that only revolution could bring about a change in the government.


So, by the end of the nineteenth century, a pattern had emerged in Europe and America. There were three great democracies — the United States, Great Britain and France — and a number of smaller ones. In Europe, the democracies were all in the west. To the east and south were Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary, which lacked or opposed democracy. Still further east was Russia, which opposed democracy more strongly than any of the other governments. Europe was divided, not only into rival nations, but into rival ways of thinking and living as well — and this division would lead to the great wars and revolutions that would later rock the world.

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