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A Radical Field Marshal

The Survival of the Habsburg Empire: Radetzky, the Imperial Army, and the Class War, 1848

by Alan Sked
Longman, 289 pp., $33.00

The nineteenth century was an age of kings, more so than the preceding century when there had been many republics and city-states, and much more so than our century. And yet, during the spring of 1848, the whole monarchical edifice in Europe threatened to collapse or, at the least, change radically. The king of the French was driven from his throne; other kings and princes were attacked, abused, or, the supreme humiliation, were forced—like Louis XVI of France half a century before—to embrace the revolution. That most of these monarchs, except for Louis Philippe of France, managed to get through the crisis was not owing to any special skill on their part nor was the French king particularly inept. As a matter of fact, Louis Philippe, himself an ex-revolutionary, was one, of the more able monarchs in Europe. By contrast, the king of Prussia was going mad, and the Habsburg emperor was both sick and retarded. Only Nicholas of Russia was able to display any real determination and dignity in 1848, but then his empire had remained untouched by the revolution.

After the Great French Revolution, the royal governments of Europe had tried to secure, through favors and concessions, the support of their former rivals: the churches, the aristocracy, and the urban bourgeoisie. In the crisis of 1848 these groups proved to be of little help to the monarchs. Most of them simply abandoned the rulers in order to save their own skins and property; many became outright revolutionaries. Because of nationalist sentiment or because they resented the increasingly authoritarian secular state, the Catholic clergy of northern Italy and Bavaria generally supported the revolutionaries. In Prussian Poland, Hungary, Transylvania, and Lombardy, the liberalnationalist revolutionary movements were organized and led entirely by noblemen.

What, then, saved the monarchies of 1848, and ultimately even enabled them to strengthen their authority? That is one question posed by Alan Sked in the book under review, and his answer is: the army, but only in those countries where the army was still closely attached to the person of the prince. The army was prepared to save the ruler, even against his will if necessary. If he refused to defy the liberal constitution he had granted in the feverish spring days of 1848, then the generals did the defying for him. Only where the army was no longer attached to the person of the monarch but belonged to the state, as was the case in France after the Napoleonic Wars, could the king no longer count on the unconditional loyalty of his armies. In the spring of 1848, after Louis Philippe was suddenly overthrown by the militia and mob, the army officer corps of France readily swore allegiance to the new Republic. Yet only a handful of French officers had been committed republicans before that time. A few months later, in June, the army willingly shed its blood defending the Republic against radical revolutionaries. Earlier than other military forces, the French army had become the apolitical servant of the state.

The generals in Austria, Prussia, and other German states sought to do more than simply save the monarchy. They wanted to crush, once and for all, the liberal and radical movements, to eliminate nationalist and socialist agitators, and to punish the peoples and the social classes they held responsible for the revolution. In other words, the officers wished to reshape the state and society after their own image. In the Habsburg Empire, Field Marshals Windischgraetz and Radetzky, General Jelacić, and Prime Minister Schwarzenberg, himself a general, forced Emperor Ferdinand to abdicate in December 1848. In their eyes, his crime was not his sickness and ineptitude, but rather his moral commitment to the constitutions he had granted or promised to his many subject peoples and provinces. The generals saw Ferdinand’s successor, the eighteen-year-old Francis Joseph, as free from his uncle’s solemn commitments—a radical reinterpretation indeed of the basic principles of hereditary monarchy. Because Francis Joseph was, and remained, a soldier’s soldier, the Habsburg army could confidently begin to crush the Hungarian, Italian, and other rebellions in the Empire; this cost a great deal of blood and took almost a year.

The regimes that arose as a result of the events of 1848-1849 in France, Germany, and Italy were noticeably harsher than the old ones had been. Based primarily on the cooperation of the army, the police, and the bureaucracy, the new absolutistic systems promoted political centralism and rational economic development, and they sought to combat localism as well as feudal privilege. The new rulers were more interested in winning over the peasants, the source of military and police manpower, than in courting the landowning nobility, the urban middle class, or the intellectuals. In this sense, the new absolutism reflected the political and social ideology of the military. The emancipation of the peasants from a feudal or quasi-feudal status, the major achievement of the 1848 revolutions in Central Europe, was not only upheld but was reinforced in the post-revolutionary era. On the other hand, the nobles, the clergy, the urban middle class, and the Jews were made to pay higher taxes and heavy fines, particularly if it could be shown that they had participated in the revolutionary movements.

Of all the military commanders who opposed making concessions to liberals and nationalists, who insisted on defending the territorial possessions of their royal masters even when civilian councilors wanted to surrender those possessions to the enemy, who hated the “treasonous” nobility and clergy, and who attempted to improve the lot of the lower orders, the most famous and the most radical was Field Marshal Count Joseph Radetzky, commander of the Habsburg army in northern Italy. Liberal-nationalist and Marxist historians have generally viewed Radetzky as an arch-reactionary; some of his contemporaries called him a communist. Alan Sked has undertaken to set the record straight, and he has succeeded admirably.

Sked, a lecturer at the London School of Economics, is a student of A.J.P. Taylor. He has inherited much of Taylor’s formidable insight and wit, as well as his taste for occasional flippancy. His work is not a biography of the old Field Marshal (Radetzky was eighty-two in 1848), but it is, among other things, an excellent study of the Austrian army between 1815 and 1848, and of its central part in European politics throughout the revolutionary years. The Austrian army was famous for being unlike any other, made up as it was of recruits from eleven major nations—Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Ukrainians, Romanians, Italians, Slovenes, Serbs, and Croats—and a dozen smaller nationality groups. Dedicated to the idea of serving a dynasty rather than a country, commanded by officers recruited from all over Europe, the Habsburg army displayed a remarkable ability to withstand the pressures of a nationalist age. Its cohesiveness was provided by its corps of officers and noncommissioned officers, who, despite their various national origins, had little if any national allegiance, at least before 1848.

Sked gives a sharp and perceptive account of this multinational organization. Since the elite members of the officer corps were trained in military academies better suited for future monks than future commanders, they were generally isolated from the world of both the ordinary soldiers and the civilian population whose language they often could not speak. The officers were outrageously underpaid in the junior ranks, and yet forced to live ostentatiously. Constrained by a stupid and arbitrary military bureaucracy, and usually confined to a single regiment throughout their careers, they were above all citizens of their units, and not of the state or even the army as a whole. When an entire Hungarian or Italian regiment of the Habsburgs occasionally joined the revolutionary ranks in 1848, it was regimental loyalty above all that moved the non-Hungarian or non-Italian officers to stay with their units and to bear arms against their emperor. More often than not, Habsburg army officers were descended from military families of commoner origin, a factor that further increased their primary loyalty to their units.

Sked demolishes longstanding historical myths. For instance, he repudiates the idea that the monarchy owed its survival primarily to its policy of divide et impera. He finds no persuasive evidence for the traditional view that troops from the uncivilized parts of the Empire were cynically used to suppress the struggle of the more civilized peoples for freedom. As he shows, troops were dispatched wherever they were needed, without much concern for their territorial origin or nationality. In 1848, when nationalism seemed to triumph everywhere, a good many troops found themselves stationed on their native soil. Thus, in Hungary, for instance, the organizers of the new national army already had at their disposal a hard core of some 30,000 trained Hungarian regulars garrisoned on Hungarian soil. To a man, they were to fight against the emperor in the struggle that ensued. In northern Italy, about 10,000 Italian troops deserted the Austrian army, and the fleet, stationed at Venice, went over to the revolution almost entirely, for the simple reason that the Austrian navy was made up almost entirely of Italians.

Sked gives much attention to the prerevolutionary shortcomings of the Habsburg army: favoritism, bureaucratic inefficiency, the extreme miserliness of the Treasury, overemphasis on drill and theory, cruel punishments, the boredom of garrison life, and plain stupidity. All this would sound more persuasive if he had made an attempt to compare the situation with that of other contemporary armies—although it is true that our knowledge of nineteenth-century armies in general and especially of their social history is still very weak. It is not very likely, however, that the other armies of Europe were much more gentle or efficient. What matters is that the Habsburg army as a whole survived the crisis of 1848-1849, and that it defeated the emperor’s foreign and domestic enemies. This is all the more remarkable if one considers that, as recent Hungarian and Italian studies have shown,* liberal and even radical ideas had made considerable headway among junior Austrian officers before 1848, and that the outburst of nationalistic passion in 1848 subjected the officers and men to almost unbearable political and moral pressures.

Take the situation in northern Italy, where the Austrian army, made up partly of Italians, had to cope with nationalistic agitation from all sides, and also to fight a war against Piedmont. In the spring of 1848, when the Italian soldiers deserted en masse, the situation, for a while, did not appear any more promising with regard to the Hungarian and Croatian troops who made up the bulk of the “Army of Italy.” The Croatian border guards, the best trained of Austria’s soldiers, threatened to quit and go home to fight against their Hungarian overlords, and the Hungarians threatened to return to defend the new Hungarian national government and constitution against the Croats and others.

That the Army of Italy did not completely fall apart in the early summer of 1848 was owing to “Papa” Radetzky’s popularity and prestige, the continued loyalty of most of the career soldiers to the Habsburg dynasty, and, just as important, the mutual fear and enmity of Croats and Hungarians. It was clear that if the Croats and their Serbian friends left the Italian front to fight the Hungarians at home, then the Hungarian troops would also leave to fight the Croats and the Serbs. In the end, by silent agreement, the Hungarian and South Slav authorities allowed their native sons to remain in Italy under the Austrian flag and to win victory after victory for the Habsburg cause. Meanwhile, at home, Hungarian and South Slav regulars, complemented by national armies, carried on a war against one another.

Radetzky had to deal not only with the Piedmontese and other Italian invasions, revolutions in Milan and Venice, and desertions from his army, but also with the ambiguous policy of the Austrian government. The liberally inclined Austrian government in Vienna, itself a product of the revolution in the spring, had contradictory aims: to preserve northern Italy—for Habsburg imperial and German nationalist reasons—and also to abandon it to the Italians—because of British diplomatic pressure, the liberal conscience of the Vienna politicians, and overall Austrian defeatism and pessimism. In general, Vienna leaned toward surrendering Lombardy to Piedmont, a step which Radetzky opposed strenuously. He argued that the Italian revolution was the affair of a small band of aristocrats and city intellectuals, to whom the lower classes were indifferent or even hostile. In fact, there was no time to surrender Lombardy, since Radetzky quickly solved the dilemma with his crushing victory over the Italians at Custozza on July 25, 1848.

There was to be one more war with Piedmont in the spring of 1849, but by that time Austria was much stronger, having defeated all but the Hungarian and Venetian revolutions. Radetzky forced the Piedmontese into a complete withdrawal and final armistice. Hungary and Venice, too, were obliged to capitulate in the early fall of 1849. Radetzky was now the undisputed master of Austrian Italy, and could carry into effect his master plan for a revolution from above on behalf of the lower classes. He levied heavy fines on the rich, especially the great aristocrats; he introduced severe measures to control the Catholic clergy politically; he lowered the price of salt in order to assist the peasants; and he offered generous leaves to his loyal peasant soldiers. The British ambassador to Turin, among others, referred to these measures as “Communism and Socialism,” but Sked is closer to the truth in calling them “a radical brand of paternalism.” Radetzky was not the only Austrian leader to despise the aristocracy: writing in January 1848, Metternich called them “the most gangrenous class of the population,” and Prime Minister Schwarzenberg was of no better opinion. But only the Field Marshal went so far as to apply his class analysis in a “class war”—as Sked calls Radetzky’s policy.

In the long run, Radetzky’s radical paternalism failed, as Sked explains, because of local opposition, the hesitancy of the Austrian government, and pressure from Great Britain. But Radetzky’s greatest disillusionment came from the fact that not all peasants rallied to his flags. Some had become Italian patriots and hated the foreign occupiers; others resented Austrian military conscription and Austrian taxes more than they resented the landowners. Radetzky himself continued to remain popular, but Austria failed to win the confidence of any social class in northern Italy. In 1859, two years after the Field Marshal’s retirement from active service and one year after his death at the age of ninetytwo, Napoleon III defeated the Austrians at Solferino and forced the surrender of Lombardy to Piedmont. In 1866, it was Venice’s turn, and in 1918, that of Istria and South Tyrol. Italian nationalism had defeated the feudal imperialism of the Habsburgs and their generals. This does not mean, however, that the Austrians deserved the intense hatred felt toward them in 1848 or later. Radetzky himself certainly seems worthy of Sked’s modest admiration. Still, some of the flavor of the times can be found in the “Italian Catechism” that was circulated in 1848, which Sked reproduces in his well-documented book:

Q. What inspires Ferdinand?

A. Sin.

Q. What inspires Metternich?

A. Ferdinand.

Q. And Radetzky?

A. The Fornication of Both.

  1. *

    See István Nemeskürty, A negyvennyolcas honvéd hadsereg katonaforradalmárai (Revolutionary Soldiers in the National [Hungarian] Army of 1848) (Budapest, 1977); Piero Pieri, Storia militare del risorgimento (Torino, 1962); and Istvan Deak, The Lawful Revolution: Louis Kossuth and the Hungarians, 1848-1849 (Columbia University Press, 1979), pp. 330-335 et passim.

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