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The Strongest Force in the Austrian Imperial Assembly

The National-Liberal Parties and Parliamentarism under Franz Joseph I

 

During the final years of absolutism in the Austrian Habsburg Monarchy, when Austria was defeated by France and Sardinia-Piedmont in the 1859 Second Italian War of Independence and lost territories in Italy, a domestic political thaw took place. Civic associations and student fraternities received growing support and were to become the building blocks of the national-liberal Lager.

 

The advisory Reichstag was expanded to include members from the new Diets of the Crown Lands and reinforced by the October Diploma of 1860. Yet, the Liberals under Minister of State Anton Ritter von Schmerling aspired to a genuine parliamentary constitution. This led to the February Patent of 1861, which applied to the entire Austrian Empire and transformed the Imperial Assembly into a parliament with legislative powers.

 

Subsequent to Austria’s defeat by the Kingdom of Prussia at Königgrätz in 1866 and its resulting political exclusion from Germany, Emperor Franz Joseph I had to agree to the 1867 Compromise with Hungary. The December Constitution of 1867 was proclaimed for the Austrian half of the newly-formed Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy, that is to say, for what was officially defined as “the Kingdoms and Lands represented in the Imperial Council”, a separate parliament which it established in Vienna.

 

The national-liberals were by far the strongest force in the Austrian Imperial Council, where they were opposed by the Catholic Conservatives. Their advocacy on behalf of the German-speaking population of the Monarchy also fuelled conflict with the Slavs. For, despite the fact that the Habsburgs had for centuries played a leading role in German affairs, Austria had since the 1866 Austro-Prussian War been separated from most of the German-speaking area. Suddenly, German-speaking Austrians in Austria-Hungary were confronted with a majority of non-German peoples.

 

This meant that several national-liberal parties developed. Taken together, they always constituted a majority of the deputies in the Austrian Imperial Council, yet they were also divided amongst themselves. The national-liberal Lager can thus be considered to have from the outset been a pillar supporting Austrian parliamentarism.

 

A particularly influential personality was Georg Ritter von Schönerer, who adopted the position of a social reformer. His political acolytes and comrades in arms included Karl Lueger in Vienna, the founder of the Christian Social movement, as well as Victor Adler and Engelbert Pernerstorfer, the founders of Austrian Social Democracy. The latter two figures, incidentally, were also fraternity members. Schönerer became increasingly radicalised. However, he and his Pan-German Association were opposed by a number of national-liberal politicians such as Otto Steinwender.

 

For all that, national-liberal forces in Austria were also particularly committed to universal suffrage, which was first implemented in 1907 as universal, equal, secret and direct suffrage for all men. Yet at the same time, the national-liberal Lager also advocated in favour of the continued existence of Austria-Hungary and ultimately went into the First World War in support of the Emperor and the Fatherland.

 

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