The Habsburg regime, in fact, was not especially oppressive – at least not by the standards of modern dictatorships. Its bureaucracy was generally honest and efficient. Moreover, Metternich used his considerable diplomatic influence to press mild reforms on the more benighted absolute rulers whose intransigence threatened to provoke violent opposition: in 1821 he promised military aid to King Ferdinand I of Naples against the monarch’s rebellious subjects, on the condition that Ferdinand made some minor concessions. Despite all the talk of the rule of law and of the benevolence of the monarchy, Metternich and other conservatives feared that, should constitutional or revolutionary movements have arisen among the diverse peoples of the Habsburg monarchy, then the very integrity of the empire would be endangered. In theory, it was held together by the subjects’ loyalty to the dynasty, the common institutions of the monarchy (including the administration and the imperial army) and, although there were religious minorities such as Jews and Protestants, the Catholicism of most Austrian subjects. In 1815 perhaps only the Germans, the Magyars, the Poles and the Italians had a deep sense of their own national identity. The first three, in particular, also dominated the other subject-nationalities of the empire, politically and socially. In Hungary the Magyar gentry lorded over the peasants who in the north were Slovaks, in the east were Transylvanian Romanians and in the south were Serbs or Croats. In Galicia the Poles tended to be the landlords holding the Ukrainian peasantry in such a state of servitude that they were practically beasts of burden. The Czechs, at least, with their high standards of education and (by 1848) the most advanced manufacturing base in the Habsburg monarchy, were beginning to challenge German hegemony in Bohemia, but one of the seething resentments among the non-Germans was that since the machinery of the state was centred in Vienna, it was dominated by German officials, whose language was usually the official medium in the law, education and administration. Even so, a developed sense of national identity was primarily shared by the aristocratic elites and the urban, middle classes, who were of course precisely the people most frustrated that opportunities in the bureaucracy, the law and in higher education were closed off unless one spoke German. This had not yet trickled down to the mass of peasants, many of whom saw the Emperor as their guardian against the depredations of their landlords, but the very fact that social difference coincided with ethnic divisions would aggravate the frequently bloody conflicts among the nationalities of Central Europe.
The resentment of the Magyars against what they saw as German dominance and overbearing Habsburg authority was potentially very dangerous to the empire. Unlike most of the other nationalities, the Magyars had a constitutional voice: the Hungarians had a diet, or parliament, which was dominated by the Magyar nobility, the clergy and the burghers of the free royal towns. Thus the ‘Hungarian nation’ – meaning in contemporary parlance those who were represented in the diet – made up a small proportion of the total population. The rest were legally defined, with graphic aptness, as the misera plebs contribuens – the poor tax-paying plebians (Latin was still, to the chagrin of patriotic Magyars, the official language of Hungarian politics and administration). The Magyar nobility none the less consisted of a fairly sizeable proportion of the Hungarian population – some 5 per cent compared to an estimated 1 per cent in pre-revolutionary France – and some of them were poor enough to be dubbed the ‘sandalled nobles’, since, it was said, they were so penniless that they could not afford boots. Yet, since these men only had their privileges and titles to distinguish them from the rest of the toiling masses, they were often the most resistant to any reform that endangered their status. Although the Habsburg Emperor, who also held the title of King of Hungary, could summon and dismiss the diet at will (and Emperor Francis sulkily refused to call the troublesome parliament between 1812 and 1825), it was difficult to raise taxation without consulting it, so it met in 1825, 1832–6, 1839–40, 1843–4 and, most dramatically, in 1847–8. Moreover, even when the parliament was not in session, the Hungarian gentry entrenched their opposition to the Habsburg monarchy in the fifty-five counties, where they elected and salaried the local officials, and where their assemblies (or ‘congregations’), which often met annually, were sometimes so bold as to claim the right to reject royal legislation.
In 1815 the Italians of Lombardy and Venetia fell under Habsburg rule. They, too, had an institutional outlet because they both had congregations, chosen from among local landowners and the towns, as well as the united ‘Congregations General’, which drew together delegates from the two provinces. These assemblies had the right to decide how to implement laws handed down by the government, represented by a viceroy living in Milan, but not to make legislation of their own. The Habsburgs had to tread carefully, for northern Italy was one of the jewels in their crown: Lombardy’s fertile, irrigated plains were a bright patchwork of wheat, of well-kept vines and of mulberry bushes, upon which silk worms produced their precious fibres. The duchy’s capital and, to the irritation of the proud Venetians, of the two provinces together, was Milan, which was culturally one of the most vibrant cities in Europe, thanks in part to the lighter touch of the censor, as compared with elsewhere in the Habsburg Empire. Lombardy-Venetia accounted for a sixth of the monarchy’s population, but contributed close to a third of its tax revenue – a fact that was not lost on Italian patriots. The Austrians worked hard to ensure that northern Italy was well and fairly governed, but the inevitable tensions arose. Educated Lombards and Venetians grumbled that Austrians occupied some 36,000 government posts, preventing Italians from enjoying their fair share of state patronage.
Outside Hungary and Lombardy-Venetia, there were no representative institutions worthy of the name in the Habsburg Empire. Since 1835 the Emperor had been the mentally disabled Ferdinand (in one famous outburst, he yelled at his courtiers, ‘I am the Emperor and I want dumplings!’). He was loved by his subjects, who affectionately referred to him as ‘Ferdy the Loony’, but of necessity the task of government was left to a council (or Staatskonferenz), dominated by Metternich. The rejection of constitutional government made repression almost unavoidable, since Metternich’s political vision would not admit the legitimacy of any opposition. There was a secret police, which operated out of offices on the Herrengasse in Vienna, but the number of officers was small – some twenty-five, including thirteen censors – so in the imperial capital they relied upon the regular police (which also handled a plethora of other tasks), while in the provinces local bureaux had to deal with both regular and secret policing. This was not a particularly intense system of surveillance, but it is also true that the activities of printers, publishers and writers were hemmed in with a range of petty, irritating regulations.10 Since only one of four categories of books was fully permitted, this fostered a climate that assumed a publication would be forbidden unless it was explicitly allowed.