Austro-Slavism as an ideological programme of the Slavs under Habsburg rule regarded the Austrian empire as the optimum political framework for the existence of the Slav peoples of central Europe. They demanded the restructuring of the empire into a federalist state and the equality of the Austrian Slavs in order to ensure their unrestricted development.
"Truly! If the Austrian empire had not already long been in existence, one would have to hurry to create it in the interests of Europe, in the interests of humanity itself."
The Czech historian and father figure of the Czech 19th century national renaissance, František Palacký (1798–1876), voiced his commitment to Austro-Slavism in his refusal to take part in the Frankfurt National Assembly of 1848.
"We Slavs are by far the largest power in this state, it is through our money and our blood that it survives, but Austria will exist only as long as we want it to – but we do want it to."
František Ladislav Rieger (1818–1903), Czech politician, journalist and spokesman of the Austro-Slavs in the Austrian Imperial Diet.
Around 1800 the idea developed amongst the national inspirers of the small Slav peoples of central Europe. Its pioneer is regarded as being Jernej Kopitar (1780–1844), a scholar of Slovene origin from Carniola, who worked in Vienna, where he was initially employed as a censor by the Police Court Office and later as head of the Manuscripts Department of the Vienna Court Library. Amongst other things, he was an outstanding philologist and created the first modern grammar of Slovene (Grammatik der slawischen Sprache in Krain, Kärnten und Steiermark, 1808).
Kopitar gathered around him a group of scholars from various national camps in order to accelerate the spread of the new national ideas. He personally regarded himself as a Slav and proclaimed Vienna as the natural centre and point of crystallisation for the Slavs of central Europe – it was here that the most important institutions for the Slav renewal were to be created.
Austro-Slavism saw the Habsburg monarchy as the guardian of the Slav peoples. It was only within the framework of this multi-ethnic empire that the small Slav peoples could find protection against German attempts to achieve hegemony and develop themselves in the field of culture and politics. Austro-Slavism, however, also rejected pan-Slavism focused on Orthodox Russia, and emphasised the western Catholic position of the Slavs of central Europe. The abandonment of Russophile pan-Slavism was also boosted by the reactionary and repressive measures of the Tsarist regime against the 1830 Polish Uprising.
The Czech Karel Havlíček Borovský (1821–1856) also demanded the abandonment of romantic pan-Slavism and national daydreaming. In his opinion, the future of the Slavs lay in modern political emancipation. Havlíček became the head of the Czech Repeal Movement, which borrowed considerably from the Irish struggle for independence against the British. The main demand was to increase the political representation of the Czechs and generally of the Slavs in proportion to their share of the population. The long-term aim was the Slavisation of the Habsburg monarchy to the detriment of the Germans and the Magyars.
At the time of the 1848 Revolution, the political elites of the Austrian Slavs were torn between an undefined awareness of a pan-Slav affinity and increasingly defined national programmes. They were united above all in their demand for liberal constitutionalism within the framework of the Habsburg empire.
At the Kremsier Diet, where the constituent Imperial Diet fled in autumn 1848 to elaborate a constitution for the Habsburg empire, the Austrian Slavs formed a single political group, but represented different programmes and interests. A number of proposals for the reorganisation of the empire on the basis of a federalist nationalities state were developed, but, following the violent dissolution of the Imperial Diet, were not pursued by the absolutist regime of the young Emperor Franz Joseph.
The refusal to participate in the Frankfurt Parliament in 1848 and the "disengagement from German history" by the Czech František Palacký (1798–1876) that this involved was the "birth certificate" of political Austro-Slavism. Palacký also rejected Slav unification on the basis of a Russian initiative, and acknowledged the Habsburg monarchy. However, by combining this with the demand for fundamental reforms, he proposed a compromise position acceptable to both the conservative (aristocracy and clergy) and liberal (intellectuals and the burgeoning economic middle-class) camps amongst the Slavophiles.
Alongside the liberal democratic Austro-Slavism, as represented by the Czech political leaders, there was also a feudal movement whose supporters were to be found in clerical and aristocratic circles. In the neo-absolutism after 1848, this movement had greater opportunities to achieve their demands, which were limited to concessions in the field of national education and language policies.
The liberal era after 1861 and the resulting German centralist approach destroyed the hopes of the Austrian Slavs for equal treatment. The Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, in which above all the Czechs felt themselves ignored, finally brought an end to political Austro-Slavism.
Although the demands for a federalist restructuring of the empire in the Austro-Slav sense continued to be the "smallest common denominator" of the Austrian Slavs, in political reality there was little to be noticed of a common approach by the Slav nationalities. The problems and ideas of the national future were too different. The unitary Slav front was more a figment of the German national and radical Magyar imagination than a real political entity.
Translation: David Wright
Křen, Jan: Dvě století střední Evropy [Zwei Jahrhunderte Mitteleuropas], Praha 2005
Moritsch, Andreas (Hrsg.): Der Austroslavismus. Ein verfrühtes Konzept zur politischen Neugestaltung Mitteleuropas [Schriftenreihe des Internationalen Zentrums für Europäische Nationalismus- und Minderheitenforschung 1], Wien 1996
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