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Absolutism and the Transition to a Constitutional State

On 2 December 1848, after the biggest wave of revolution had subsided, Ferdinand I (known in Bohemia as Ferdinand Dobrotivý – “Ferdinand the Benign”) abdicated. The feebleminded emperor was succeeded by Franz Joseph I, who was not encumbered by the “inappropriate” promises made at the time of the revolutions. The new sovereign had his forces disperse the imperial parliament in Kroměříž along with the prepared constitution. In December 1851, a decision by the emperor suspended the constitution. All that remained recognised from the revolution of 1848 was the equality of people before the law, the abolition of the corvée, religious freedom, and local autonomy within a limited extent. The 1850s are known as the years of Bach’s Absolutism after the minister Alexander Bach, the main exponent of absolutist government. This brought a restriction of political rights, the centralisation of polity and a shift towards the Catholic Church through the conclusion of an international concordat with the Vatican in 1855. On the other hand, the state strived to support and develop industry and trade.

The regime was forced to make reforms by a military debacle in northern Italy. It lost because it did not have enough military might to prevent the gradual unification of Italy. Defeats at Magenta and Solferino as well as the catastrophic state of the regime’s finances forced the representatives of state power to invite representatives of the bourgeoisie into the decision-making process. Austria finally changed from being an absolutist monarchy to a constitutional monarchy.  However, the February constitution was proclaimed in the same way as both previous octroy constitutions, i.e. it was not adopted by elected members of parliament.  It brought about a renewal of political life in Austria.

An imperial council of two chambers was established – an upper lords’ chamber and a lower chamber of deputies. The nations of the monarchy got the chance to promote their own interests. The Czech national programme was to attain national equality and civil rights, as well as to gain extensive autonomy.

Austria continually endeavoured to promote a greater German solution through German unification, which led to rivalry with Prussia and logically resulted in both countries going to war with each other culminating in the Battle of Sadova near Hradec Králové (Koniggratz) in 1866, which was won by the Prussians. Besides its international impact, such as Austria’s withdrawal from Italy and Germany, losing the war also had internal political repercussions.  The so-called Austro-Hungarian settlement was reached, resulting in the country being divided into the Austrian Cisleithania and the Hungarian Transleithania, with the Germans having the decisive say in one part and the Hungarians having it in the other.  Both parts were united under the figure of the sovereign with military, foreign-policy and financial matters being a common sphere of concern.  The December constitution of 1867 preserved the strong status of the monarch – sacrosanct, inviolable and not answerable to anyone, with the right to issue provisional decrees when the imperial council was not in session. At first, there was no universal or equal right to vote. Universal male suffrage was only applied for the first time in elections to the chamber of deputies in 1907.