Imperial Council (Austria)

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Reichsrat building in Vienna, around 1900
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Compromise of 1867

The Imperial Council (German: Reichsrat, Czech: Říšská rada, Croatian: Carevinsko vijeće, Slovene: Državni zbor) from 1867 to 1918 was the parliament of the Cisleithanian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was a bicameral legislature, consisting of the Herrenhaus (House of Lords) and the Abgeordnetenhaus (House of Deputies). From 1883 the Imperial Council met at the Austrian Parliament Building on the Ringstraße in Vienna.

Creation[edit]

In the course of the Revolutions of 1848, representatives from those crown lands of the Austrian Empire incorporated in the German Confederation met in a Reichstag assembly at Vienna. The convention was inaugurated by Archduke John on 22 July 1848 and after the Vienna Uprising of October moved to Moravian Kroměříž. It not only abolished the last remnants of serfdom in the Austrian lands, but also undertook to draw up a constitution that would reflect the Empire's character of a multinational state, especially in view of the Austroslavic movement led by the Czech politician František Palacký.

On 4 March 1849, however, Minister-President Felix zu Schwarzenberg took the initiative and imposed the March Constitution, which promised the equality of all Austrian people and also provided for a bicameral Reichstag legislature. It was nevertheless only a sidestep, as Schwarzenberg three days later forcefully disbanded the Kremsier Parliament and finally had the constitution annulled with the New Year's Eve Patent (Silvesterpatent) of 1851. Emperor Franz Joseph went on to rule with absolute power. In place of the Reichstag he installed a Reichsrat counseling committee, whose members he appointed on his own authority.

In the 1850s the chronic national deficit became acute and the emperor saw himself on the brink after the Second Italian War of Independence and the bloody Austrian defeat at the 1859 Battle of Solferino. To calm the domestic front and to gain the support of wealthy bourgeois, Franz Joseph in 1860 issued the October Diploma, which again had the main features of a constitution. The Reichstag, still a predominantly consulting institution, was enlarged to a convention of one hundred delegates, deputed by the Landtag assemblies of the Austrian crown lands. This regulation, however, satisfied neither the bourgeois liberals nor the Hungarian magnates, who strongly refused any overlordship by a Vienna parliament and reacted with a tax protest.

Assembly hall of the House of Representatives

The next year Franz Joseph proclaimed the February Patent, charted by liberal Minister-President Anton von Schmerling, as a new constitution for the empire. The Basic Law on the Representation of the Realm, dated 26 February 1861, was annexed to the February Patent. It implemented the bicameral legislature of the Imperial Council and has therefore been considered the “birth certificate” of the Austrian parliament.[1] It was however again rejected by Hungary and officially suspended in 1865. The constitutional basis changed dramatically after the lost Austro-Prussian War of 1866, the dissolution of the German Confederation and the succeeding Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867.

In December 1867 a constitution was adopted that re-enacted the February Patent, but applied it explicitly to Cisleithania, officially called "The Kingdoms and Lands represented in the Imperial Council" (German: Die im Reichsrat vertretenen Königreiche und Länder), to the exclusion of the Transleithanian lands of the Hungarian kingdom. The remaining Cisleithanian members of the Abgeordnetenhaus were at first deputed by the Austrian Landtage; after an 1873 electoral reform, they were directly elected for a six-year term of office, but originally only under the terms of a census suffrage by those male citizens who paid a certain amount of taxes. The Council had extensive legislative powers in all Austrian matters; however, the appointment and dismissal of the Cisleithanian Minister-President and his government remained a privilege of the emperor.

House of Lords[edit]

Most of the bills passed by the Lower House required the consent of the House of Lords, except for the government budget and military recruitment. The membership of the Herrenhaus was attained by inheritance, by appointment or by an ecclesiastical role in the Catholic Church. The upper house comprised:

  1. Adult Archdukes (Erzherzöge) of the ruling Habsburg-Lorraine dynasty;
  2. the Archbishops of Vienna, Salzburg, Prague, Olomouc (Olmütz), Lviv (Lemberg), Zadar (Zara) and Gorizia (Görz);
    the Bishops of Seckau, Lavant, Wrocław (Breslau), Trento (Trient), Brixen, Trieste (Triest), Ljubljana (Laibach), Hradec Králové (Königgrätz), Kraków (Krakau), Przemyśl, and Transylvania (Siebenbürgen);
    the Greek Catholic Archbishop of Făgăraş and Alba Iulia;
    the Archeparch of Lviv;
    the Archbishop of the Armenian Catholic Church at Lviv;
  3. Austrian nobles appointed as hereditary peers by the Emperor of Austria;
  4. Austrian citizens appointed as life peers.

House of Representatives[edit]

After several electoral reforms enacted by Minister-Presidents Eduard Taaffe and Kasimir Felix Badeni, in 1907 voting rights finally became independent of the amount of taxes paid. This gave stronger representation to less wealthy individuals such as members of the working class, and diminished the power of the German-speaking bourgeoisie. Suffrage was extended to all males aged 24 or older who had resided in one place for at least one year, and the principle of "one man one vote" was implemented in furtherance of universal, direct, equal, and democratic suffrage. While this was perhaps an admirable advance in terms of democratic theory, the inevitable result was the splintering of the Council into numerous factions, principally geographical and ideological, which damaged its function as a working legislature.

Opening session of the lower house 1907

In 1907 the Council's lower house was composed of 514 delegates:

  1. 96 Christian-Socials
  2. 86 Social Democrats
  3. 84 Pro-German partisans, composed of the following:
    1. 31 German People's Party
    2. 21 German-Agrarians
    3. 17 German-Progressives
    4. 12 German-Radicals ("Wolfians")
    5. 3 Pan-Germans ("Schonerians")
  4. 82 Czech partisans, composed of the following:
    1. 28 Czech-Agrarians
    2. 18 Young Czech Party
    3. 17 Czech Conservatives
    4. 9 Czech National Socialists
    5. 7 Old Czechs
    6. 2 Czech Progressives ("Realists")
    7. 1 Czech nonaffiliated
  5. 70 Poles, composed of the following:
    1. 25 Polish National Democrats
    2. 17 Polish People's Party
    3. 16 Polish Conservatives
    4. 12 Polish Center
  6. 5 Jewish members, composed of the following:
    1. 4 Jewish National Party
    2. 1 Jewish Democrats
  7. 14 Italians, composed of the following:
    1. 10 Italian Conservatives
    2. 4 Italian Liberals
  8. 23 Slovenians, composed of the following:
    1. 18 Slovenian Conservatives
    2. 5 Slovenian Liberals
  9. 29 Ruthenians, composed of the following:
    1. 25 Ruthenian National Democrats
    2. 4 Old Ruthenians
  10. 12 Croats
  11. 5 Romanians
  12. 2 Serbs
  13. 1 Radical Russian
  14. 1 Free Socialist
  15. 1 Independent Socialist
  16. 1 Social Politician
  17. 2 nonaffiliated members

In addition there were 2 vacant seats.

After the decline of the German Liberals following the Panic of 1873, no party ever won an absolute majority. Throughout its existence, the effectiveness of the Imperial Council suffered heavily from conflicts between and within the numerous constituent ethnic groups of the monarchy. The Austrian governments had to rely on loose ad hoc alliances, often with the support of the Polish representatives (Polenklub), and there were as many as 29 Minister-Presidents between 1867 and 1918.

The sessions of the Abgeordnetenhaus proceeded chaotically as the deputies did not even agree on a common language, though only speeches in German were taken into the official record. After Minister-President Badeni failed with his language ordinance in 1897, many Czech delegates denied the authority of the "German"-Austrian parliament in general and sabotaged the meetings by countless emergency motions and filibusters. They were fiercely opposed by the German Radicals and the Pan-Germanists, who themselves sought the dissolution of the Monarchy and annexation of all its German-speaking territories by the German Empire. The conflicts culminated in shouting and brawls, which made the galleries a popular entertainment venue for Viennese citizens, among them the young Adolf Hitler.

See also[edit]

Footnotes[edit]

References[edit]

  • Hamman, Brigitte (1999). Hitler's Vienna: A Dictator's Apprenticeship. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-512537-1. 
  • Mommsen, Hans (2003). The Third Reich Between Vision and Reality: New Perspectives on German History 1918-1945. Berg Publishers. ISBN 1-85973-627-0. 

External links[edit]