Outbreak of the war
End of the war

Liberalism and conservatism

Political movements in the Habsburg Empire at the end of the 19th century

The conflicting interests of the different social classes and of the different nationalities meant that the political and ideological movements that were developing within the Habsburg Monarchy in the second half of the 19th century were extremely heterogeneous. This was also reflected in the party landscape. However, two major lines of development can be distinguished, conservatism and liberalism.



The 1848 Revolution was based on the principles of liberalism that had been developing since 1815. Its demand for freedom of the individual was regarded as having been implemented in the drafting of the constitution and the separation of powers. The focus of liberal ideology was the emancipated citizen freed from state controls who was expected to earn his right to participate in the political decision-making process through his achievements in the field of education or business. Liberalism demanded the abolition of censorship, freedom of press and speech and the restriction of state authority. Its social basis was to be found in the middle class, part of the aristocracy, high finance and big industry, the intelligentsia and part of the civil service.

With their anticlerical stance, the liberals were bitterly opposed to the Concordat concluded in 1855 between the Habsburg Monarchy and the Pope granting the Catholic Church considerable privileges within the Empire – such as in marriage legislation and education. Austrian liberalism supported the primacy of German culture, and for this reason it was also known as German liberalism. This led it to adopt a centralistic approach in the multinational state's constitutional affairs.

However, the liberals, despite their common critical attitude to the government, did not constitute a single entity, and comprised a number of competing political movements. While the representatives of the "liberalism of notables" (the middle class) held firmly to a hierarchically structured model of society and were unwilling to grant political participation to all classes of society, the "democrats" rejected restricting the franchise to taxpayers and demanded universal suffrage.

The liberal camp was also divided by the nationalities question. Unable to form a pan-Austrian movement, they formed groupings differentiated according to nationalities. While the German liberals as centralists insisted on and pursued a policy of strengthening the political powers of the government, the liberals of other nations were in favour of greater federalism and a certain degree of autonomy.

The conservatives, upholders of Catholic, in part anti-Semitic and federalist principles, proved to be the most vehement opponents of liberal ideology. This was the movement of the aristocratic large landowners, the Catholic Church, civil servants loyal to the government and in part the peasantry, all of whom attempted to defend the legitimacy of the monarchy. The conservatives objected to the liberal principles and the constitutional government, and became supporters of federalism (with above all the leading landed aristocracy attempting to link a federalist approach to the traditions of the old estates). An important theoretician of Austrian conservatism was Karl von Vogelsang, who between 1870 and 1890 was head of its most important press organ, Vaterland. However, given the multiethnic composition of the Habsburg Empire, it also proved impossible to establish a uniform movement amongst the conservatives.


Translation: David Wright


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Contents related to this chapter


  • Aspect

    On the eve of war

    The last decade of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth were a time of modernisation, mechanisation and speed. In 1910, Vienna, capital of the Habsburg empire, had 2.1 million inhabitants and had grown to become an international metropolis. New technologies changed working life and leisure. Railways increased mobility, as did the bicycle, motor vehicle and aeroplane. How did this development manifest itself and what other trends emerged in the last years before the outbreak of the First World War?