Equestrian portrait of Nicholas I by Alexander Petrovich Schwabe
In July 1848 the Hungarians, led by Lajos Kossuth, fought for liberation from Austria. However, upon the Austrians’ request in 1849, Tsar Nicholas I sent Russian troops to crush the rebellion. Nevertheless, Kossuth’s initiative paved the way for the compromise in March 1867 (known in German as the Ausgleich), which granted both the Austrian and Hungarian kingdoms separate parliaments with which to govern their respective internal affairs. It also established a dual monarchy, whereby a single emperor (Francis Joseph I) conducted the financial, foreign, and military affairs of the two kingdoms.
Nicholas I defined himself and his system as a militaristic one, and the first few years of his rule also witnessed his consolidation of power through force. He continued the wars in the Caucasus begun by Alexander I, and consolidated Russian power in Transcaucasia by defeating the Persians in 1828. Russia also fought the Ottoman Empire in 1828–1829 over the rights of Christian subjects in Turkey and disagreements over territories between the two empires. Although the fighting produced mixed results, Russia considered itself a victor and gained concessions. One year later, in 1830, a revolt broke out in Poland, an autonomous part of the Russian Empire. The revolt spread from Warsaw to the western provinces of Russia, and Nicholas sent in troops to crush it in 1831. With the rebellion over, Nicholas announced the Organic Statute of 1832, which increased Russian control over Polish affairs. The Polish revolt brought back memories of 1825 for Nicholas, who responded by pushing further Russification programs throughout his empire. Order reigned, but nationalist reactions in Poland, Ukraine, and elsewhere would ensure problems for future Russian rulers.
Nicholas also presided over increasingly oppressive measures directed at any forms of perceived opposition to his rule. Russian culture began to flourish in the decade between 1838 and 1848, as writers from Mikhail Lermontov to Nikolai Gogol and critics such as Vissarion Belinsky and Alexander Herzen burst onto the Russian cultural scene. Eventually, as their writings increasingly criticized the Nicholaevan system, the tsar cracked down, and his Third Section arrested numerous intellectuals. Nicholas’s reputation as the quintessential autocrat developed from these policies, which reached an apex in 1848. When revolutions broke out across Europe, Nicholas was convinced that they were a threat to the existence of his system. He sent Russian troops to crush rebellions in Moldavia and Wallachia in 1848 and to support Austrian rights in Lombardy and Hungary in 1849. At home, Nicholas oversaw further censorship and repressions of universities. By 1850, he had earned his reputation as the Gendarme of Europe.
At the end of 1848, after the successful suppression of a revolt in Vienna in October, a new Austrian government led by Schwarzenberg took office and the Emperor Ferdinand abdicated in favour of his young nephew, Francis Joseph. The Austrians were now able to turn their attention to the restoration of Habsburg rule in Hungary. In Prussia Frederick William IV, encouraged by the Austrian example, dissolved the Prussian constituent assembly and promulgated a new constitution. As 1848 drew to a close, it seemed as if order was being restored. However, in January 1849, the effects in Europe of Kossuth’s decision to make use of the Poles in the Hungarian forces brought an unpleasant surprise in the shape of the victories of the Hungarian army in Transylvania led by General Bern. At the request of the local Austrian military commander and in the face of opposition from Schwarzenberg, Nicholas reluctantly agreed to a limited intervention by some of the Russian troops based in the Danubian Principalities in support of the Austrians. The intervention was not successful and by the end of March the Russian troops were forced to withdraw along with the defeated Austrian forces. Nicholas was dismayed and determined that any further military intervention he might be called upon to make would be on a suitably massive scale.
Bern’s success in Transylvania was followed by further Hungarian victories elsewhere on Hungary under the leadership of General Görgey and by the middle of April the situation had become critical. The replacement of Windischgraetz by Weiden as Austrian Commander-in-Chief in Hungary brought no improvement. Despite Radetzky’s victory against Piedmont at Novara on 23rd March, continuing Austrian difficulties in Italy made it impossible to transfer troops from there for use against Hungary.
As a result, a reluctant Schwarzenberg and Austrian Council of Ministers were compelled to yield to military necessity and appeal to Nicholas for Russian assistance in suppressing the revolt in Hungary. Austria’s first request was for aid in restoring the situation in Transylvania which was rejected by Nicholas as being impractical. This was followed by an urgent personal appeal to Paskevich in Warsaw for the dispatch of Russian troops to assist the Austrians in dealing with the threat of a Hungarian attack on Vienna and renewed outbreak of revolution in the city. Much to Nicholas’ displeasure Paskevich sent a composite Russian division by rail from Cracow to Moravia without seeking the Tsar’s approval.
Nicholas had made it clear from the outset of the revolutions in Europe which began in 1848 that he would not intervene unless Russia’s interests were directly threatened. He could hardly refuse a request from the Austrians for aid especially as he had given a solemn promise to the Emperor Francis before his death that he would come to the assistance of his “idiot son” or successor if misfortune should occur. Nicholas was not the man to break his promise and in any case, he was being asked to defend the cause of order in the struggle against revolution which had begun in France in 1789. Nevertheless, just as be had been reluctant to intervene in the Danubian Principalities the previous year, he wished to be certain that Russia’s own interests were directly threatened.
The increasing involvement of the Poles in Hungarian affairs provided Nicholas with the answer to any doubts which he may have had. Bern’s successes in Transylvania were followed by reports of a threatened invasion of Galicia, possibly led by General Dembinski, another of the Poles who had joined the Hungarian cause. A Polish general was active in the Sardinian army and Nicholas had not forgotten the part played by the Poles in causing disturbances in the Danubian Principalities. It seemed to him that Hungary was about to become the centre of a general conspiracy led by Russia’s eternal enemies, the Poles, against all that was sacred. The Hungarian military successes were beginning to have a disturbing effect on the population of Russian Poland and accordingly Austria’s request for aid must be granted for Russia’s own safety. In early 1848 Nicholas had spoken to an Austrian diplomat of his concern about the threat from Galica to Russian Poland and he was to use the same phrase “une insurrection à mes portes” t o the French Ambassador who arrived in Warsaw as the campaign in Hungary was drawing to a close. In a conversation about the reasons for his intervention Nesselrode was to compare the role of the Russian intervention force to that of a fire brigade sent to prevent the spread of a fire which had broken out in a neighbour’s house.
The Austrians were, of course, well aware of Nicholas’ concern about the Poles and it seems quite probable that they deliberately played on his feelings by exaggerating the number of Poles who had enlisted in the Hungarian army. The official commentary which accompanied the Russian manifesto of 8th May 1849 announcing the intervention in Hungary referred to 20,000 Poles serving in the Hungarian army, whereas the true number was much less, possibly 3,000 or 4,000.
In short, Nicholas’ reasons for intervening in Hungary were a combination of a commitment to the cause of absolutism and monarchical solidarity, combined with a desire to prevent the spread of Polish inspired subversion to Russian Poland and Western Russia. There seems little doubt that it was fear of the Poles which tipped the scales in favour of Austria’s request. Indeed, when the news of Görgey’s surrender to the Russians on 13th August reached Warsaw Nicholas fell on his knees and thanked God that he no longer had to sacrifice Russian blood for a cause which was not directly the cause of Russia. As Bismarck was to remark in his memoirs, Nicholas was an idealist with a chivalrous nature who never lost this characteristic throughout his reign. But Austria’s refusal to come to Russia’s aid during the Crimean War was to show Nicholas that there is no such thing as gratitude in politics and that he had been right to have doubts about the wisdom of intervention.
The Russian intervention in Hungary was one of the most significant events that took place during the revolutionary years of 1848 and 1849. Its success had an unfortunate effect on Nicholas who became even more convinced of his own omnipotence and even less willing to listen to argument. This judgement by one of the Tsar’s closest adviers, A. S. Menshikov, the Minister of the Navy, is echoed by Lord Bloomfield, the British Ambassador to Russia, who had his first audience with Nicholas on 17th December 1849 after his return from leave in mid-October. (The delay was caused by the refugee crisis in Turkey.) In a private letter to Palmerston sent two days afterwards, the ambassador wrote that the “trial of 1849″ had succeeded beyond the Tsar’s expectations and that he now believed he could “dictate the law to a great portion of Europe.” Nicholas seemed to be completely unaffected by the political changes which had taken place and appeared to be more convinced than ever of the “superiority of absolute government and the irresistibilty of his vast power”. Despite these words, even Lord Bloomfield seemed over-awed by the sheer size of the Russian army and after receiving a report on it from his French colleague, General de La Moricière, wrote to Palmerston of its great efficiency. The Crimean War was to prove to be a greater test for the Russian army than the eight week campaign in Hungary.
Besides over-estimating his military power, Nicholas also over-estimated his political influence. It was Nicholas’ misfortune that he became the ruler of Russia in an age of change, just as Philip II became ruler of Spain in an age of dissolving faith. Nicholas completely failed to understand that ideas could not be kept out of Russia in the age of the railway and the steamship. Nor could he comprehend the nature of a constitutional monarchy and that in the Europe which had emerged after the Napoleonic Wars relations between states could no longer be conducted on the basis of personal relationships between sovereigns, as had been possible in the previous century. The point was made to him by Queen Victoria in a reply she sent to one of the Tsar’s personal appeals shortly before the outbreak of the Crimean War;
“Whatever the purity of the motives which direct the actions of a sovereign of even the most elevated character, Your Majesty knows that personal qualities are not sufficient in international transactions by which a state binds itself towards another in solemn engagements.”
Thus it came about that four years after his intervention in Hungary Nicholas found himself, as Nesselrode had warned him, fighting a war against Great Britain, France, Turkey and Sardinia while his erstwhile allies Austria and Prussia remained neutral. Even more ironically he found himself wondering how he could best exploit any disturbances that might break out in Hungary in the course of the war in order to make Austria carry out his wishes. It was an outcome to his intervention in Hungary which must have seemed utterly remote on the evening of 21st April 1849, as he sat in his study on the first floor of the Grand Palace in the Kremlin, looking out on the river.
Louis (Lajos) Kossuth . August Prinzhofer (1817–1885)
In spite of the failure of the various revolutionary movements in Austria in the spring of 1848, the Metternich regime could not be maintained. A constituent assembly or preliminary parliament had to be convoked by Emperor Ferdinand I even before he abdicated, on December 2, in favor of his nephew, Francis Joseph I. That assembly, meeting first in Vienna and later in Kromeriz (Kremsier) in Moravia, had to prepare a constitution for the Habsburg monarchy which would not only establish a parliamentary government and introduce social reforms but also give satisfaction to the claims of the various nationalities. Under a Polish speaker, Francis Smolka, both German and Slav deputies made a serious effort to solve these two problems. The latter, particularly the Czechs, wanted a real federalization of the empire which Palacky, in his plan of January 13, 1849, proposed to divide into eight entirely new provinces corresponding to the main ethnic groups. In order to avoid too drastic changes of the existing boundaries and the breaking up of the various historic units, the final draft of the new constitution, of March 1, attempted a compromise. Self-government was provided for each of the historic lands of the monarchy, but those which had a mixed population were to be subdivided into autonomous districts (Kreise) for each nationality. This constructive idea was never to materialize, however, and the whole “Kremsier Constitution” was abandoned when the new prime minister, Prince Felix Schwarzenberg, dissolved the assembly and returned to an absolute and centralistic form of government under German leadership.
One of the reasons for that final defeat of the Austrian revolution, even in its moderate expression, was indeed the military strength of the imperial regime. The Austrian army under Field Marshal Radetzky twice defeated the only foreign power which interfered with the internal troubles of the monarchy. This was the kingdom of Sardinia which, aiming at the unification of Italy, tried in vain to liberate the Italian populations still under Habsburg rule. But for the history of East Central Europe the second reason for the temporary victory of imperialism and absolutism is even more significant. It was not only difficult in general to reconcile the frequently conflicting claims of the various nationalities for instance, the claims of Italians and “Illyrians” (Slovenes and Croats in the maritime provinces or the claims of Poles and Ruthenians in Galicia) but any federal transformation of the empire, following ethnic lines, found an almost insurmountable obstacle in the basic opposition between the historic conception of the kingdom of Hungary and the aspirations of the non-Magyar nationalities of that kingdom which Vienna was able to play off against Budapest.
In that respect failure to arrive at an agreement was the more regrettable because the Magyars represented by far the strongest force of opposition against the central regime. Realizing this, Ferdinand I, the fourth as king of Hungary, accepted the demands of the bloodless revolution which also broke out in Hungary’s capital in the middle of March, 1848. Count Louis Batthyány became the first Hungarian prime minister and the liberal bills voted by the Hungarian Diet were approved. But the delicate issue of the relations between the new democratic kingdom and Austria, which was left in suspense, alarmed both the reactionaries in Vienna and the non-Magyar peoples of Hungary. The latter were afraid of the nationalism of the most influential Magyar leader, Louis Kossuth, a man who was favorable to social reforms but who was unprepared to recognize the equal rights of all nationalities.
Most of these were Slavs, including the Slovaks of northern Hungary—close kin of the Czechs in the Austrian part of the empire—and the Serb minority in southern Hungary looking toward the autonomous principality of Serbia on the other side of the border. But more than any other Slavs and more than the Rumanians of Transylvania, who at once protested against the incorporation of that province with Hungary and who were influenced by the rising Rumanian nationalism in the Danubian principalities, the Croats were to prove the most dangerous opponents of the Hungarian revolution. Fearing for the traditional autonomy of their kingdom if the ties with a free Hungary were to be made closer, they hoped to best serve their own national interests by siding with the imperial government in Vienna. It was therefore the Croat army, under Baron Joseph Jellachich, appointed ban of Croatia by the emperor and also ready to cooperate with the Orthodox Serbs, which was used by Austria to crush the Magyars.
Jellachich’s army was defeated when it entered Hungary in September, 1848. Even the occupation of Pest, early in 1849, by the same Prince Windisch-Graetz who had stopped the Slavic movement in Prague, and in October, 1848, another uprising in Vienna which was favorable to the Hungarians, did not put an end to the fierce resistance of the Magyars. On the contrary, equally opposed to the projects of the Kromeriz Assembly and to the centralized empire which was supposed to replace them, the Magyars, fearing that their kingdom would be made a mere province of Austria, with Transylvania and even the Serb territory (Voivodina) being separated, decided to dethrone the Habsburg dynasty, and on April 14,1849, at Debrecen, they approved a declaration of independence which was partly drafted on the American model. At the same time the parliament named Kossuth “Governing President.”
He also had to conduct the war in defense of the new republic whose establishment seemed to be a turning point in the history of East Central Europe, a first step in the direction of the complete liberation of all nations placed under foreign rule. As such it was particularly welcomed by the Poles whose friendship with the Hungarians was traditional. But in spite of that friendship the Polish leaders were fully aware of the fateful mistake which the defenders of Hungarian nationalism were making by disregarding the nationalism of the non-Magyar peoples. A reconciliation between Magyars on the one hand and Slavs and Rumanians on the other, was strongly encouraged both by Prince Czartoryski, who continued to conduct Polish diplomacy from Paris and who established relations even with Sardinia and Serbia, and by the Polish generals who participated in the Hungarian independence war.
One of them, Henryk Dembinski, was for a certain time even commander in chief of the Hungarian forces. Another, Josef Bem, a better strategist and more popular in Hungary, particularly distinguished himself in the defense of Transylvania where he tried in vain to better the relations between Magyars and Rumanians. He had to fight not only against the Austrians but also against the Russians, because after the defeat of Windisch-Graetz the emperor had asked for aid from Czar Nicholas I who had been able to prevent any revolutionary outbreak in his own realm and had stopped a liberal revolt in Rumania. The czar now was ready to offer his assistance in crushing the last and most alarming insurrection in East Central Europe.
The Polish participation in that revolution was for him a special reason for interfering since he was afraid that a Hungarian victory would also encourage the Poles to resume their struggle for independence, possibly under the same generals, and with the revolutionary movement eventually spreading from Austrian to Russian Poland. On his way to Hungary the Russian field marshal Paskevich, the same who had crushed the Polish insurrection in 1831 and now governed the former “kingdom,” took his auxiliary army through Galicia which was still restless after the troubles of 1848. The first Hungarian territory which he entered was the Ruthenian region south of the Carpathians, where among close kin of the czar’s “Little Russians” or Ukrainians—another national minority rather neglected by the Magyars—a feeling of solidarity with Russia was created on that occasion.
Attacked from two sides by superior forces, the exhausted Hungarian army, in spite of the courageous efforts of its last commander, General Arthur Görgey, had to capitulate. This took place at Világos near Arad on August 13, 1849, and all fighting ended in October when General George Klapka had to surrender the fortress of Komárom. This was at the same time the end of the whole revolutionary movement in the Habsburg Empire, and although even the Russians suggested an amnesty, the long resistance of the Hungarians was now ruthlessly punished. The victorious Austrian commander, General Julius Haynau, instituted a regime of terror which culminated in the execution of the former prime minister, Batthyány, and thirteen high officers. Kossuth had to go into exile and it was in America that he was received with special enthusiasm in 1851. But in general the Hungarian emigration was no more successful than the Polish in getting Western support for the oppressed peoples of East Central Europe.
Moreover, it was not only the Magyars who had to suffer from the new era of reaction. This was similar to the Metternich regime in its twofold trend of centralization and Germanization, which after the end of the military operations lasted for about ten years in the whole Habsburg monarchy under prime minister Alexander von Bach. After fighting on the Austrian side, even Croatia lost her former autonomy and separate diet, and the non-Magyar nationalities of Hungary proper, including the Saxons of Transylvania, were equally disappointed, the new Serb voivodina being placed under military administration.
In the Austrian part of the monarchy, all administrative and judicial reforms which had to be undertaken under pressure of the barely suppressed revolution were also aimed at a complete unification of the empire through a German bureaucracy. Contrary to the promises which had been made in March, 1849, the Bach administration, instead of a parliament, merely created a “council of state” which was composed of officials and which proved hostile to any kind of provincial self-government and particularly to the claims of all non-German nationalities. Only in Galicia was some progress made by the Poles, when after General Hammerstein’s military regime, one of them, Count Agenor Goluchowski, was made governor or viceroy of the undivided province. But even that prominent statesman was to find greater possibilities of action only in the reform period ten years later.
Immediately after the revolutionary crisis of 1848, which in East Central Europe began two years earlier and lasted one year longer than in the West, that whole region returned to a condition similar to that which prevailed after the Congress of Vienna. In the case of the Poles, that situation was even worse as far as Russian Poland and Cracow were concerned, and all stateless nationalities resented their oppression much more than ever before because of the continuous progress of their national consciousness and the high hopes which the various revolutions had raised. These revolutions having failed, it seemed that only a European war could improve their lot, especially if Western Europe would show a real interest in the freedom of all nations in opposition to the autocratic empires in the eastern part of the Continent. Nobody expressed that idea better than the Polish poet, Adam Mickiewicz, who, turning from literature to political action, had tried in 1848 to create a Polish legion in Italy, as in the days of Bonaparte. He was now ready to welcome another Napoleon as a liberator and the Crimean War as an occasion for reorganizing Europe on a basis of national rights.