Of the year 1848 the British historian Trevelyan remarked that it was the great turning point at which history failed to turn. Given the accumulation of tensions and conflicts since the Congress of Vienna, nationalistic passions, the miserable condition of the peasantry, entrepreneurs chafing under restrictions placed on them, intellectuals stifled by censorship and other restrictions on freedom of expression, it was nearly a miracle that a dynasty that was known for its mediocrity more than for anything else was able to survive the upheavals of 1848–49 and reestablish itself with its powers undiminished. The lack of creative leadership among revolutionary forces, except in Hungary, was no doubt a factor in the failure but there was also the almost mystical staying power of the Habsburgs in face of all adversity, it gave them reason to trust divine providence to which, more than to their subjects, they felt responsible.
The first reaction to the news from Paris erupted in Hungary, where Lajos Kossuth early in March demanded a democratic constitution providing for popular representation. Vienna liberals quickly took their cue; ad hoc assemblies composed mainly of staid bourgeois began drafting petitions to the throne almost identical to the one issued by Kossuth. On March 13, demonstrations, heretofore peaceful, erupted into armed clashes in the Austrian capital when a crowd of students surrounded the parliament building in the Herrengasse and police fired on them; a number of demonstrators died. Soon violence spread to other parts of the city. The two ranking archdukes on the state conference decided to offer up to the crowd the aged Metternich, the most resented figure in the empire. That evening Metternich, after a feeble attempt to display his steadfastness, resigned and took the long road into exile. As had happened in France, the disorders were largely confined to the capital; apart from some minor outbreaks in Graz, the countryside remained quiet. But outside the German lands, in Hungary, Italy, Bohemia, Galicia, even in Croatia, the ferment was unmistakable. The Vienna court hesitated between making concessions and applying force. The latter was the customary course of action but tempers were too explosive to employ it without grave risk. Mere personnel changes in the government after the flight of Metternich were not likely to satisfy the demonstrators. The mention of a constitution, on the other hand, even if insincerely meant, still carried magic. Accordingly, on April 25 the new interior minister, Baron Pillersdorf, proclaimed one, though only for the hereditary lands. It provided for a bicameral legislature, the lower house elected by adult male taxpayers, the upper named by the emperor from among landed magnates and trusted aristocrats. The emperor, according to this forlorn document, had an absolute veto over measures passed by either house.
The draft did not calm revolutionary passions; crowds invaded the royal palace, demanding the withdrawal of Pillersdorf’s proposed constitution. Ferdinand and his court, insofar as they had any policy at all, geared their reaction to the disorders to the degree of danger they represented. By May passions seemed to have cooled and the emperor attempted to dissolve the national guard, which had made itself responsible for maintaining order in the capital. This occasioned another uprising and, reluctantly, the royal court decided that Vienna was no longer a safe city in which to reside. Ferdinand fled to the town of Innsbruck in the loyal Tyrol, where he was received with thunderous enthusiasm. However, Vienna was still the functional nerve center of a sprawling empire, and the streets there were ruled by a bourgeois national guard, well-to-do men of progressive views, whose aspirations did not go further than royal assurances for the protection of, first and foremost, private property. They were joined by “academic legions,” composed largely of university youth. In June the government at last convoked the parliament provided for in Pillersdorf’s draft, the Reichstag as it was called, but that body, made up of a majority of Slavs, rejected the very constitution on which its authority rested. Discussions of proposed reforms continued but the only one of import that emerged, on September 5, was one calling for the emancipation of the serfs.
In August the emperor and his entourage, satisfied that responsible elements were once again in charge in Vienna, returned to the capital from Innsbruck. By now, however, events in Hungary rather than developments in Austria determined the course of events. Kossuth asked the help of first the court and then the newly elected Reichstag in curbing Croatian ambitions, but he met with refusal. There was no single political will left in Vienna. The court, stubbornly conservative, granted only such concessions as it could not avoid if it wanted to maintain itself, always in the hope that once order was reestablished it could withdraw them. The popular mood in Vienna, however, was still revolutionary and favored any action that defied the Habsburgs; in the matter of Jelačić’s defiance, it sided with the brave Hungarians. When an Austrian artillery company under orders to march against Hungary crossed the city, crowds prevented its passage and bloody street battles erupted. Vienna once again became unsafe for the royal house, and Ferdinand and his court moved, this time to the Moravian city of Olmütz. A few days later the Reichstag too left Vienna and reconvened in another Moravian town, Kremsier. Obviously though, these were temporary expedients. The displaced court made preparations to reconquer Vienna by military means. On October 31 Marshal Windischgrätz, having reduced to rubble the Bohemian capital of Prague, where a disorderly pan-Slavic conference was meeting, took his artillery to the walls of Vienna and inflicted a similar fate on the capital. Royal authority was finally reestablished, and even though the price was high, the court was willing to pay it. The time for concessions had passed. They had led to nothing but demands for further reforms, and terror became the order of the day. Active and suspected revolutionaries in the Austrian capital, among them lawmakers and respectable citizens, including a number of journalists, were rounded up, summarily tried, and often shot. Military force and military justice accomplished what months of political maneuvering could not; Vienna was secure as the Habsburg capital and reform was off the agenda.