Fringes of an Empire (1848, #3)

The revolutions of 1848 were a truly European event. We’ve seen how the spark from Paris also set Germany ablaze. Part of that Germany was Austria, the German-speaking part of the Habsburg monarchy. Yet the Habsburgs also ruled over vast non-German territories: Their rich holdings in northern Italy provided a third of the total tax income. Hungary had been essential for Habsburg power projections into the Balkans for centuries. Both the Italians and the Hungarians – and also Czechs and Galicians – yearned to shake off Habsburg domination and chart their own national destinies.

Radetzky’s Retreat and Advance: Italy

Italy had been a hotbed of political activity directed against the old order. The philosopher Giuseppe Mazzini was the most famous advocate of liberal, republican, and nationalist change in Europe before 1848. He inspired movements in Poland and Germany – and, of course, his Italian compatriots from the separatist Sicilians over the Pope’s nationalist subjects in Rome to the liberals of the rich northern cities.

Austria controlled both Lombardy and Venetia in the north of Italy. The two regions were each dominated by a major city – Milan in Lombardy, Venice in Venetia. Both cities erupted in rebellion almost in parallel in March 1848:

On March 18, Milanese protesters took the Austrian vice-governor hostage. In return, the commander of the Austrian forces in Italy, Josef Wenzel von Radetzky, had his troops fire on the crowd. Milan was shaken by heavy street fighting over the next days. Board gamers can re-enact these fights as Italian nationalists in the (famously tough) cooperative Radetzky: Milano 1848 (Alberto Barbieri/Marco Garavaglia/P.S. Martensen, Demoela Giochi/Post Scriptum).

Italian nationalists are on the barricades – but field marshal Radetzky maintains composure. Cover of Radetzky: Milano 1848, ©Demoeloa Games/Post Scriptum.

While the national movement in Milan split into a republican and monarchist wing after the first day of fighting, its fighting spirit was not diminished. The insurgents took the army barracks and forced the Austrian troops under Radetzky to withdraw. Politically, they made the compromise to accept to accept the offer of help extended by Charles Albert, king of Sardinia-Piedmont (who hoped to become king of a united Italy), but extend their plea to all other Italian peoples and princes as well. Charles Albert duly declared war on Austria on March 23.

In Venice, the lawyer and nationalist Daniele Manin had been arrested and imprisoned by the Austrian authorities for demanding independence for Lombardo-Venetia in January. When revolution spread through Europe in March 1848, the crowds in Venice demanded his release. The Austrians complied by March 18. It didn’t help them: Italian troops and workers of the Arsenale shipyard expelled the Austrians by March 23. Manin himself was barely involved in the uprising, but was still made Prime Minister of the newly proclaimed Venetian Republic.

Now the two Italian uprisings needed to sort out the contradictions between Milanese cooperation with the king of Sardinia-Piedmont and Venetian republicanism – and they needed to link up to expel the Austrians from Italy entirely. Radetzky, for one, was not in the mood to make their task easier. He fell back with his army to the Quadrilateral, the four Austrian fortresses which lay between Milan and Venice and commanded the road leading over the Alps back to Austria.

The campaigns for Italy’s independence were fought on the country’s rich northern plains. Easily visible: The four red dots representing the Quadrilateral fortresses in the center. Map of Risorgimento (Michael Bennighof, Decision Games).

This, however, was not the only road to Austria. The one along the Adriatic coast shook under the boots of a new Austrian army commanded by Count Nugent making their way into Venetia. Manin’s Venetian Republic thus came under pressure – and could not hope for help from Milan or Sardinia-Piedmont which had joined in monarchist unison. The provisional government of Lombardy had held a referendum on the future of the region: Presented with the choice between being annexed by Piedmont (the Lombard monarchists’ preferred option) and the return to Austria as the only alternative offered, voters overwhelmingly chose the former. Charles Albert now demanded immediate “fusion” from Venetia (thus, joining Venetia to his kingdom) – and Manin saw no other option but to accept.

While Charles Albert now was de jure king of all northern Italy (at least in the Italians’ perspective), he still did not control much more of it than Piedmont and Milan. Linking Lombardy and Venetia was crucial for him, but his attempt was denied by Radetzky’s fierce resistance at the Quadrilateral. In the meantime, Nugent fought his way through Venetia and joined forces with Radetzky at the fortresses.

The central government in Vienna urged Radetzky to negotiate a ceasefire. The field marshal, however, disregarded the instructions. At some point, he hoped, the hawks would take over in Vienna again. And once his order was to expel Charles Albert from Lombardy, he would march.

The time came in July 1848. Radetzky’s army emerged from the Quadrilateral, defeated Charles Albert at Custoza, and took back control of Milan. A timely ceasefire saved Charles Albert from an Austrian invasion of Piedmont. Venice, bereft of its only ally, but thus also no longer shackled by the necessities of compromise with the Piedmontese monarchy, went back to republicanism – with a provisional government headed by Giuseppe Mazzini.

Nationalism in a Multi-National Kingdom: Hungary

The Hungarians were among the earliest respondents to the revolution in Paris. The head of their national movement, the lawyer Lajos Kossuth, had demanded Hungarian independence as early as March 3, 1848. When Vienna was shaken by revolutionary upheaval only a few days later, the Hungarians seized their chance. They sent a delegation to Vienna. As the emperor already had to contend with the loss of his chief minister Metternich and the revolutionary crowd in front of his palace, the well-dressed Hungarian nobles and bourgeois seemed rather pleasant and their demands quite acceptable. On March 17, the Hungarian delegation returned with an agreement that granted them self-government within the lands belonging to St. Stephen’s crown – effectively the eastern half of the Habsburg empire.

In the eyes of the Hungarian nationalists, that meant they could build a Hungarian nation-state within that empire – notwithstanding the variety of other ethnicities living in the lands of St. Stephen’s crown (Romanians, Croats, Poles, Ruthenians [Ukrainians]). The Romanians demanded self-government of their own just a week after the Hungarians had gotten theirs. Otherwise, they not so subtly threatened, they would just split off from the Habsburg empire and form their own Romanian state with their compatriots in the (Ottoman-ruled) principalities of Wallachia and Moldova. The government in Vienna signaled to the Hungarians that this was their problem to solve now.

An even thornier matter were the Croats. They had traditionally contributed an outsized number of soldiers for the Habsburg armies and made up a large part of the forces under Radetzky and Nugent in Italy. The Vienna central government was thus ready to be very lenient with them when it came to insubordination to the Hungarian sub-government. The Hungarian answer was to propose Hungarian volunteers for the Austrian campaign in Italy to ingratiate themselves with the emperor and reign in the Croats – symptomatic for the tendency of the 1848 liberals to prioritize their own nationalist goals over the European revolution. In any case, it was to no avail. By September 1848, Vienna even tacitly approved a Croatian military offensive against Hungary. At this point, the Hungarian national movement was caught between so many challenge vectors that it’s only natural that someone designed a States of Siege game on it: 1848—1849: Hungary Fights for Freedom (Gábor Valló, web-published).

Converging threats: So far, so typical for a States of Siege map. Here, however, the player’s center of gravity can be moved away from Budapest (follow the arrows), reflecting the Hungarian nationalists’ flexible policy in the winter of 1848/49. Map of 1848-1849: Hungary Fights for Freedom, ©Gábor Valló.

Divide and Rule: Czechia and Galicia

By now, we’ve seen the two major plays from the Austrian playbook: A limited military campaign (as in Italy) and the exploitation of divisions between the ethnicities in their empire (as in Hungary). On a smaller scale, these worked elsewhere, too:

Galicia was one of the last places in Europe where serfdom had not yet been abolished. Almost all of the serfs were ethnic Ruthenians (today, we’d call them Ukrainians) who lived and worked on the land owned by Polish landlords. When these Polish middle classes advocated for democratic reform and a united Poland made up of the Polish-inhabited parts of Austria, Prussia, and Russia, Austrian emperor Ferdinand emancipated the serfs (April 22, 1848). The Ruthenians now regarded him as the benefactor to whom they owned their personal freedom, and were utterly unresponsive to the Polish attempts to build a reform coalition against the emperor.

The Czech nationalists (less liberal or democratic than the revolutionaries elsewhere) demanded equality with the ethnic Germans in Bohemia and Moravia (both part of the German Confederation). The Austrian government acceded to parts of their demands, establishing (separate) regional corporative parliaments in Bohemia and Moravia and allowing Czech to be taught in schools in April 1848. The compromise was only tactical, though: When Czech workers clashed with the (German) National Guard in Prague on June 12, 1848, Alfred, Prince of Windisch-Graetz, the commander of the Austrian forces there, did not hesitate to brutally suppress the Czech national movement. The Czechs were utterly defeated in only five days. Windisch-Graetz marched his troops to Vienna. The Viennese liberals and democrats could only regard this as a threat.

We’ll look at the final clashes of these revolutions in the next (and final) instalment of this series!

Games Referenced

Radetzky: Milano 1848 (Alberto Barbieri/Marco Garavaglia/P.S. Martensen, Demoela Giochi/Post Scriptum)

Risorgimento (Michael Bennighof, Decision Games)

1848—1849: Hungary Fights for Freedom (Gábor Valló, web-published)

Further Reading

For a good blow-by-blow account of the 1848 revolutions, see Rapport, Mike: 1848. Year of Revolution, Abacus, London 2010.

On a more zoomed-out, analytical level: Hobsbawm, Eric: The Age of Capital. Europe, 1848—1873, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 1975.


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