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The Sick Man of Austria

Frederick Engels

The Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria seems permitted to live only that he may prove the truth of the old Latin maxim, that he whom the gods mean to destroy they first make mad. From the beginning of the year 1859 he has done nothing but deliberately trample under foot every chance that was offered to him to save himself and the Austrian Empire. The sudden attack on Piedmont with a portion only of his forces—the superseding of Marshal Hess in the command of the army by the Emperor and his clique—the irresolution which led to the battle of Solferino—the sudden conclusion of peace at the very moment when the French had arrived before his strongest positions—the obstinate refusal of all concessions in the internal organization of the Empire until it was too late, form an unequaled series of foolish blunders to be committed by one individual in so short a time.

But, as luck would have it, Francis Joseph had still another chance. The barefaced double-dealing of Louis Napoleon rendered necessary that alliance between Prussia and. Austria which the preceding humiliations of Austria, her daily increasing difficulties at home and abroad, had first rendered possible. The interviews of Baden and Teplitz[335] sealed that alliance. Prussia, for the first time acting as the representative of the rest of Germany, promised her assistance in case Austria was attacked, not only by Italy, but by France also; while Austria promised to make concessions to public opinion, and change her internal policy. Here was indeed a hope for Francis Joseph. A fight with Italy single-handed he might not fear, even in case of troubles in Hungary, for his new policy was to be the best guaranty of security in that quarter. With a separate Constitution based upon the one abolished in 1849, Hungary would have been satisfied; a liberal Constitution for the whole of the Empire would have fulfilled the present wishes of the German nucleus of the monarchy, and counteracted in a great measure the separate - tendencies of the Slavonic provinces. The finances once under popular control, public credit would have recovered itself, and the same Austria, now weak, poor, prostrate, exhausted, and a prey to internal divisions, would have soon regained strength under the protection of the 700,000 bayonets which Germany held ready to defend her. To insure all this, but two things were required of Austria: to follow up a genuine liberal policy at home, sincerely and without reserve, and to remain on the defensive in Venice, abandoning the remainder of Italy to its fate.

But neither the one nor the other, it appears, can or will Francis Joseph do. He can neither throw overboard his power as an absolute monarch, which is every day being dissolved more and more into vapor, nor can he forget that position of protector of the petty Italian tyrants, which he has already lost. Insincere, weak, and obstinate at the same time, he seems to fly from his internal difficulties to an aggressive war abroad, and rather than cement his Empire by the sacrifice of a power which is slipping from his hands, he appears to have thrown himself once more into the arms of his personal cronies, and to be preparing a descent into Italy which may end in the breaking up of the Austrian monarchy.

There may or there may not be a note or other communication-sent from Vienna to Turin, on the subject of Garibaldi's landing in Calabria; but it is quite probable that Francis Joseph has made up his mind to consider this landing a case for his intervention in favor of the King of Naples[a]. Whether this be true, we shall soon see. But what can be the cause of this sudden revulsion of Austrian policy? Has the recent fraternization with Prussia and Bavaria turned the head of Francis Joseph? It is not likely; for, after all, that fraternization of Teplitz was a humiliation for him, and a triumph for Prussia only. Does Francis Joseph intend to collect under his standard the armies of the Pope[b] and of the King of Naples before Garibaldi has shattered them to atoms and incorporated their Italian elements with his own followers? That would be a very insufficient motive. In any campaign whatever, these troops will want for nothing, while, in the position in which Austria will place herself by such a foolish aggression, she will want for everything. There can be no other cause for it than the state of internal Austrian politics. And here we have not to seek long. The Council of the Empire, reenforced by some of the most conservative and aristocratic elements of the different Provinces, and intrusted, in time of peace, with the control of the finances of the country, is about to discuss the question of popular representation and constitutions for the Empire and the single provinces composing it. The motions made to this effect by the Hungarian members have an overwhelming majority in the Committee, and will be passed in the same triumphant manner in the Council, in the face of the Government. In one word, the second Austrian Revolution seems to have set in. The Council of the Empire—a weak counterfeit of the French Notables—exactly as they did, declares itself incompetent, and calls for the States General[336]. The Government, in the same financial difficulties as that of Louis XVI, and weaker still by the diverging tendencies of the various nationalities composing the Empire, is not in a position to resist. Concessions wrested from the Government are sure to be followed by fees and demands. The States General soon formed themselves into the National Assembly. Francis Joseph feels the ground tremble under his feet, and to escape from the impending earthquake will perhaps fly into a war.

If Francis Joseph acts up to his menace, commencing a crusade for legitimacy in Naples and the Papal States, what will be the end of it? There is not a Power or State in Europe which has the slightest interest in the maintenance of the Bourbons, and if Francis Joseph interferes in their behalf, he will have to bear the consequences. Louis Napoleon is sure to cross the Alps in defense of non-intervention; and Austria, with the public opinion of all Europe dead against her, with ruined finances, insurrection in Hungary, and a brave but far outnumbered army, will be fearfully beaten. Perhaps she will receive her death-blow. As to Germany coming to her aid, it is perfectly out of the question. The Germans will most decidedly decline to fight either for the King of Naples or for the Pope. They will take care to have the territory of the Confederation respected (which both French and Italians will be but too glad to submit to), and if Hungary rises, they will look on quite as coolly. Nay, the German provinces of the Empire will, very likely, support the demands of the Hungarians, as they did in 1848, and demand a Constitution for themselves. The Austrian press, restricted as it is by the Government, still shows unmistakable signs of the existence, even in Austria, of a widespread sympathy with Garibaldi. The current of opinion has changed from the channel it followed last year; Venice is now considered a very bad kind of property, and the struggle of the Italians for independence, since it is carried on without French assistance, is looked on in a favorable light by the Viennese public. Francis Joseph will find it exceedingly difficult to make even his own German subjects take up the cause of the Bourbon of Naples, of the Pope, of the petty Dukes of Emilia. A people which is just entering on a revolution against absolutism, is not likely to stick up for the dynastic interests of its ruler. The Viennese have proved this before, and it is possible enough that the passage of the Po by the Austrian troops may become the signal for the use of more violent means by the movement party in Vienna as well as in Hungary.

Written on August 16, 1860
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 6039, September 1, 1860 as a leading article;
reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1594, September 4,
and in the New-York Weekly Tribune, No. 991, September 8, 1860


[a] Francis II.—Ed.

[b] Pius IX.—Ed.

[335] On June 16 and 17, 1860, at Baden-Baden, Napoleon III met the Prince Regent William of Prussia, and the princes of other German states. Hoping to realise his ambition of annexing the German lands on the left bank of the Rhine, he sought a deal with Prussia at the expense of the small German states. The meeting ended in failure for Napoleon and helped Prussia secure a key role in Germany's foreign policy.

Francis Joseph of Austria, and William, Prince Regent of Prussia, met on July 26, 1860 in Teplitz (Teplice). The Austrian emperor sought Prussia's support in case of a war with France and Sardinia.

[336] The assemblée des notables—a consultative body irregularly convened by French kings from the fourteenth century to the eighteenth. It consisted of representatives of the higher clergy and court nobility, and also of mayors of the cities. ln 1787, on the eve of the French Revolution, it voted down the government's tax bill and met for the last time in 1788 to discuss the composition of, and elections to, the States General.

The States General—a body representing the social estates in medieval France. It consisted of clergymen, nobles and burghers. Convened in May 1789, after a 175-year interval, at a time when the bourgeois revolution was maturing in France, the States General were on June 17 transformed by the decision of the deputies of the third estate into the National Assembly, which on July 9 proclaimed itself the Constituent Assembly and became the supreme organ of revolutionary France.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 17 (pp.457-460), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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