26 November 2019

The Archduke and the Failed Reich

The Mad Monarchist looks at an oft forgotten bit of history, the failed German Empire of 1848-49.

From The Mad Monarchist (14 December 2016)

The history of the Germans has been one of a disparate people organized into small states interspersed by relatively short periods of three major empires or, as the Germans would call them, the First Reich, Second Reich and, the most short-lived of all, the Third Reich. Each were quite different though the first and second obviously had more in common with each other than the third. Prior to the First Reich the Germans had been a primitive, though fierce, collection of warring tribes. A taste of Roman civilization and conversion to Christianity culminated in the establishment of the First German Empire, officially known as the “Holy Roman Empire of the German Peoples”. This represented the longest period of time that all the German people were at least nominally united under one Crown. However, it was, in a way, an intermittent empire. For most of its history it was more of a confederacy of loosely associated autonomous states that generally went their own way. It was only occasionally, under such monarchs as Otto the Great, Frederick Barbarossa or Frederick II a united and powerful empire.

The First Reich
The Second Reich was that established in 1871 dominated by the Kingdom of Prussia and excluding the many German-speaking people of the Austrian Empire. It too was a collection of states but one more solidly united by the central government and it lasted until 1918, doomed by the German defeat in World War I. However, in between these two was an attempt at another German Empire which tried to bring about the unification, or reunification, of the German people earlier than it actually happened. The effort was unsuccessful and so it receives relatively little attention in history but it is still quite significant in understanding why the actual Second Reich was formed in the way that it was, how it was established and who it would include and who it would not. This was the German Empire of 1848-49, established by the vote of the Frankfurt Parliament, regarded by historians as the first freely elected Parliament representing all Germans. Born out of a revolutionary movement, it was nonetheless intended to be a hereditary monarchy though it would ultimately be a Reich without a Kaiser (emperor). The most lofty leader it could manage was an Imperial Regent which was Archduke Johann of Austria.

Born in 1782 in Florence, Italy, the thirteenth child of the very prolific Habsburg Grand Duke of Tuscany, later the Emperor Leopold II, Archduke Johann was given command of the Austrian Imperial Army at the start of the wars with Napoleon. He did not think he was up to the job and was ultimately proven correct. Though personally brave and intelligent, he was no great commander and his forces were soundly beaten. Afterwards, he was put in charge of overseeing military fortifications and later the military academy which were jobs more suited to his particular skill-set. Called back into service by the outbreak of the War of the Third Coalition, he proved much more capable as a defensive commander in the mountainous Tyrol region, fighting the French and their Bavarian allies. When the Austrian Emperor was forced to cede this territory, Archduke Johann supported the resistance of the Austrian population in the Tyrol led by the famous Tyrolean hero Andreas Hofer. In the War of the Fifth Coalition, he was once again given command of an army and did have some success but was ultimately defeated by the Franco-Italian army of Napoleon’s stepson Eugene, Viceroy of the Kingdom of Italy.

When the Austrian statesman Metternich determined to make peace with Napoleonic France, Archduke Johann was shoved aside because of his continued support for resistance and encouraging irregular warfare in the Austrian territory ceded to the French allied states. He left the military and devoted himself to intellectual pursuits, becoming very popular with the Styrians, founded a number of institutions of higher learning, climbed mountains and got married in 1829. As it was an unequal marriage, his brother Emperor Francis I excluded him from the Habsburg succession. This, naturally, caused some tension at court and, his wife being from a rather upper-middle class background, his promotion of modernization in Styria, all probably came together to give Archduke Johann a reputation for being more liberal than he really was.

Doubtless though it was that very reputation which was at least somewhat responsible for him becoming Imperial Regent of the short-lived German Empire of 1848. At the height of the March Revolution of that year, which in the German-speaking lands had started in Austria and quickly spread to Baden, the Palatinate, Prussia, Saxony, the Rhineland and Bavaria, leading German revolutionary nationalists got together in Heidelberg and organized an elected pan-German parliament that met in May in Frankfurt. All the German states had agreed to this elected assembly and all sent representatives. This National Assembly, known as the Frankfurt Assembly today, tried to come to a consensus for the creation of a new pan-German Reich that would include all German-speaking peoples. The first question was what form it would take. The most liberal proposed a federal republic similar to that of the United States of America but they lost to the more moderate majority that favored a constitutional monarchy.

The president of this assembly was Baron Heinrich von Gagern but they needed someone to occupy the position of Head of State, at least temporarily while this new German Reich established itself. So it was that the position of regent, or officially, “Imperial Vicar” was established and given to Archduke Johann of Austria. Baron von Gagern pushed for his election but this itself was something that was argued over. For many, the idea of a German Reich with a Habsburg in the highest position of leadership was only natural given how the Austrian Imperial Family had become, effectively, the Imperial Family of the First German Reich (the elections having long become a mere formality). However, there were those who thought that the Austrian lands, united with so many non-Germans such as Slavs and Hungarians, should be excluded from the new Reich whereas the adherents of the “Greater Germany” ideal, argued for their inclusion.

Archduke Johann actually had little to do since so much was still being debated and the situation in the various German states was changing so rapidly. He signed bills into law passed by the Assembly and appointed chosen officials to their post, such as Prince Carl von Leiningen (half-brother of Britain’s Queen Victoria) as head of government. However, while the Austrian sympathizers had history on their side, the wave of German nationalism sparked by the war against Napoleonic France had been largely focused on the Kingdom of Prussia and the Archduke was not so enthusiastic about the direction the Frankfurt Assembly seemed to be heading in with such a heavy emphasis on Prussia. Still, some actions taken were to linger for quite some time. It designated as its flag, and that of the German Confederation of which the head of the House of Habsburg was hereditary president, the black-red-gold tricolor that is the German flag today, the black and gold colors of Habsburg Austria overlaid with a red stripe to represent the Hanseatic states of the north. They could also claim descent from the colors of the arms of the First German Reich, a black eagle with red beak and talons on a gold field. The Imperial Fleet, established by the Assembly, was to outlive it by a number of years, continuing on until 1852. The pan-German colors would go on being used by the German Confederation until it was replaced by the Prussian-dominated North German Confederation after the Austro-Prussian War.

King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia
However, the greatest problem for these assembled revolutionary nationalists was that there were people in the streets putting events into motion while these delegates debated and voted in Frankfurt. When the Austrian Imperial Army put down the disorder in the streets, a representative of the Assembly was arrested and executed, taking Austria out of the picture and putting to rest the arguments in favor of a “Greater Germany” in a rather dramatic way. In other states, the various German princes began to put down the liberal unrest and ignored the Frankfurt Assembly which carried on for a time, seemingly oblivious to what was going on around them. When they finally decided on a constitution, Archduke Johann had no hand in it but signed it into law. It established the new German Reich as a constitutional hereditary monarchy with the crown and title of “Emperor of the Germans” going to the King of Prussia and his heirs and successors. However, the Prussians were likewise busy suppressing revolutionaries and in 1849 when a delegation arrived to formally offer King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia the title of “Kaiser” he firmly refused, famously saying that he would not accept, “a crown from the gutter” but only one offered by the traditional German Prince-Electors of the old First Reich. The King was a very conservative minded, staunchly Lutheran man who very much believed in the Divine Right of Kings and did not want a crown he would owe to an elected assembly, no matter how lofty it might seem.

The King of Prussia further undercut the liberal nationalist movement by enacting his own constitution for Prussia, one that would keep power in the hands he trusted most. For the Imperial Vicar, Archduke Johann, he took this in stride, asserting that he could carry on exercising executive authority, however, with the Austrians removing themselves from the movement and the Prussians also rejecting it, the refusal of the King of Prussia really spelled the end for the whole concept. Some states enacted liberal changes, others did not but the Revolutionary movement ultimately ground to a halt and rendered the Frankfurt Assembly powerless, ignored by all. Archduke Johann officially resigned his position on December 20, 1849 and the effort at a new German Reich came to an end with the German Confederation remaining the only pan-German government organization. He later became the only member of the Imperial Family to ever be elected mayor. The Archduke died ten years later in 1859.

Reichsflotte / Imperial Fleet
Archduke Johann of Austria had taken up the cause of a new pan-German Reich with enthusiasm. However, he was never quite so liberal as many of the others engaged in the same enterprise. His personal life and disagreements with Metternich tended to make him seem more “radical” than he really was. This perception, however, won him the support of the liberals whereas the monarchists and the “Greater Germany” proponents favored him because he was a Habsburg Archduke of Austria. He wanted greater unity among the German peoples, more academic freedom, less censorship and greater scientific and technical advancements such as he had seen in England. However, a revolutionary or ideologue he was not. This was the same man, after all, who had organized the Landwehr in Inner Austria and Tyrol, who had supported the resistance fighter Andreas Hofer and who, in fact, was banned from the Tyrol for years by his brother for fear that he would instigate trouble with Napoleonic France after the Austrian Empire had made peace with them. As it was though, that effort at German unity proved unsuccessful and the world would have to wait for the official Second German Reich, arranged by Otto von Bismarck, which would be very different indeed from that envisioned by the Frankfurt Assembly and Archduke Johann of Austria.

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