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 …

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