Outbreak of the war
End of the war

The Call for Autonomy

Bohemian Constitutional Law and the role of Bohemia in the Austrian commonwealth

Coming next after the suppression of the 1848 Revolution was at first a political ice age. Nevertheless, the people’s demands could not be permanently ignored. National-liberal ideas had cast strong roots also in the Czech bourgeoisie, just emerging at the time.

Because of the weakness of his neo-absolutist regime in both foreign and internal affairs Emperor Franz Joseph was forced to comply with people’s demands to have a say in political affairs. One of the main demands of the bourgeoisie was met when in accord with the resolutions of the February Patent of 1861 the Imperial Diet was called together, which was to include members from the respective provincial diets. But the Czech representatives of the Bohemian lands felt disadvantaged, because the member’s election to the provincial diet was based on the census franchise; this paired political vocal rights with tax contributions and thus gave the Germans – the economic élite in the country – a disproportionately stronger representation in the Bohemian Diet than corresponded to their actual number.

The feeling of being disadvantaged also determined the Czechs’ participation in the overall development of the commonwealth. The political representatives of the young Czech nation sent their members to the Imperial Council in Vienna, which now had powers of constitution, but they had their reservations, since they felt it to be an instrument of German-dominated centralism.

In the spirit of Austro-Slavism, the Czechs favoured a federalist policy towards nationalities. Discussion of their placement within the Monarchy was conducted with the motto of the Bohemian Constitutional Law. This implied the special constitutional position of the historical Bohemian lands (Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia), which since the Middle Ages had formed a unit with autonomous legal tradition and administration. However, this had been suspended in the course of centralist reforms under Maria Theresa. Ever since, the Bohemian lands had been lumped together in administration as individual provinces together with the Austrian Hereditary Lands. The Bohemian Constitutional Law had now become the doctrine of Czech politics, which aimed to fight for the autonomous status of the lands within the framework of the Monarchy.

However, these demands were disappointed: the most important change brought about by constitutionalism, namely, the complete reorganisation of the Monarchy through the Austro-Hungarian Compensation of 1867, was a slap in the face for the Czech national movement – the Czechs, who had submitted similar autonomist demands as the Hungarians, saw themselves disadvantaged once again. The consequence was a radical change in the attitude of the leading representatives of the Czechs to the Austrian Empire, which was now increasingly seen as an obstacle to their national evolution.

Translation: Abigail Prohaska


Hoensch, Jörg K.: Geschichte Böhmens. Von der slavischen Landnahme bis ins 20. Jahrhundert, München 1987

Kořalka, Jiří/Crampton, Richard J.: Die Tschechen, in: Wandruszka, Adam/Urbanitsch, Peter (Hrsg.): Die Habsburgermonarchie 1848–1918, Band III: Die Völker des Reiches, Wien 1980, Teilband 1, 489–521

Kořalka, Jiří: Tschechen im Habsburgerreich und in Europa 1815 bis 1914. Sozialgeschichtliche Zusammenhänge der neuzeitlichen Nationsbildung und der Nationalitätenfrage in den böhmischen Ländern (Schriftenreihe des Österreichischen Ost- und Südosteuropa-Instituts 18), Wien 1991

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Contents related to this chapter


  • Aspect

    “Viribus unitis” or prison of nations?

    The multi-ethnic Austria-Hungary formed a relatively stable environment for the co-existence of the many ethnic communities. The much-vaunted “unity in diversity” was in fact overshadowed by numerous inequalities. This was illustrated above all in the differing weight of the various language groups involved in political and economic rule. These inequalities were increasingly challenged by the disadvantaged nationalities. As a result, the nationality issue dominated political affairs, leading to destabilisation of the Monarchy.

Persons, Objects & Events


  • Development

    Nation-building – national programmes and positions

    Nation-building was part of the emancipation by large sections of the population from feudal dependence. In line with the ideals of the Enlightenment and French Revolution, the nation – understood as a community of free citizens – was to become the sovereign in place of feudal potentates.