The Prague Slavic Congress of 1848 was a major event in the Europe of upheavals of 1848. It was a time of revolution. Individual nations oppressed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, inspired by the French Revolution, gained confidence to fight back against the ruling class and secure individual freedom. In the case of the Slavic nations, this was not a spiritual battle for mere self-preservation but also for the preservation of Europe as a whole.
There were many dividing issues among the individual Slavic peoples, which had to do with what area of the Empire they were under, Austrian or Hungarian. Tsarist Russia shaped the events in Poland, and the Poles were gripped by fears of the regime on their doorstep. The nations under Austrian rule dreaded growing German nationalism, which is what drove some of them to embrace the doctrine of Austroslavism. Nevertheless, Slavs proved that they were able to overcome vindictive tendencies, as representatives of Czechs decided on the right to have both Czech and German languages in the Czech lands. Poles and Ruthenians also overcome their differences and agreed on a language compromise.
The Slavs, dominated by the Hungarians, faced a greater predicament, because the Hungarians sought independence from the monarchy for themselves only. No rights would apply to the non-Hungarian Slavs. It was in this scenario that the delegates from individual Slavic nations met to state their grievances, gain understanding of the issues of their neighbors, and draw up a plan for further action, both on the national and the international levels. The goals of the Congress were vague at the outset, and it was not concluded properly due to armed unrest, but it created a petition of Slavic demands to the Emperor and provided a blueprint for international relations, where equal rights of all nations would be acknowledged.
Pan-Slavism was introduced as intended to promote the political or cultural unity of all Slavs; it helped unite the Slavic lands against the increasing German nationalism. Advocated by various individuals from the seventeenth century, it developed as an intellectual and cultural movement in the nineteenth century. Stimulated by the rise of Romanticism and nationalism, it grew with the awakening of the Slavs within the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Slavic historians, philologists, and anthropologists helped spread a national consciousness among the Slavs, and some dreamed of a unified Slavic culture.
The intensity of Slavism varied among the different factions that participated in the Congress. Hungarians exhibited the greatest cultural Pan-Slavism due to Magyarization (Hungarization). Polish Slavism was also intense, mostly exhibited through the literature of writers such as Jan Gawiński. Czechs and Slovenes, on the other hand, were moderate because of the already large German influence.
A general disgust with conservative domestic policies, an urge for more freedoms and greater popular participation in government, rising nationalism, social problems brought on by the Industrial Revolution, and increasing hunger caused by harvest failures in the mid-1840s all contributed to growing unrest in the nations ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In February 1848, Paris, the archetype of revolution at that time, rose against its government, and within weeks many major cities in Europe followed suit.
The Revolution of 1848 in the Hapsburg monarchy came in three forms—social, democratic-liberal, and national—but outside Vienna the national aspect soon overshadowed the other two, which was most evident in Hungary. Emperor Joseph II's effort to incorporate Hungary more fully into the monarchy escalated the Hungarians’ endeavors to preserve their cultural traditions and continue their political domination of the land. Under the leadership of the lawyer and journalist Lajos Kossuth, the Hungarian diet demanded sweeping reforms, including civil liberties and far greater autonomy for the Hungarian government, and the emperor was forced to accede to those. A new constitution—the April Laws—was drafted; however, minority nationalities living in Hungary put up resistance due to the knowledge of the Hungarian language being a qualification for membership in parliament and participation in government. The new regime was mainly marked by an intense pride in being Hungarian, although 60 percent of the Hungarian portion of the Hapsburg monarchy was non-Hungarian. Kossuth’s government was as unsympathetic to the demands and hopes of its Serbian, Croatian, Slovak, and Romanian populations as Vienna had been to the demands of the Hungarians.
Besides the Hungarians and the Italians, the Slavic peoples of the monarchy also responded to the revolutionary surge, although with less violence than the other two. The Hapsburg authorities faced diverse and growing opposition in Prague, the Bohemian capital, in the 1840s, but no group initiated a revolution before news of other uprisings and the government's own weakness provided the opportunity. The Czech nationalist movement called for liberal constitutional reforms and equal educational rights for Czech and German speakers.
To advance the cause of civil and cultural rights for all Slavic peoples in the monarchy, the historian František Palacký and other Czech leaders organized a Slavic congress to meet in Prague.
The Prague Slavic Congress of 1848 (also known as the Pan-Slav Congress of 1848) took place between June 2 and June 12, 1848. It was a manifestation of power and resistance, unity, and vigilance of the Slavs, endangered in their existence by the plans of German unification and the nationalistic policy of the Hungarians. Furthermore, it was the first attempt to negotiate the future relations among neighboring Slav nations of the Hapsburg monarchy, and to regulate international, rather than inter-state, relationships. It was one of the few times that voices from all Slav populations of Europe were heard in one place.
The idea of the Congress was first conceived on April 20, 1848, by Ivan Kukuljevic Sakginski, a Croat, and Ľudovít Štúr, a Slovak; this inspired similar projects by Jedrzej Moraczewski of Poznan, Poland. Since it was a response to a startling intensification of German nationalism, it was supported by the Czech politicians as well. On May 1, the preparatory committee of the Congress issued an address inviting delegates; officially only representatives of the Slavs living in the Habsburg monarchy were invited, although Slavs from other parts of Europe were welcomed too. Altogether 340 delegates arrived representing Croats, Czechs, Dalmatians, Moravians, Poles, Ruthenians, Serbs, Silesians, Slovaks, and Slovenes, as well as 500 official guests.
The Congress held debates in three sections:
Each section elected its officers and designated sixteen representatives for the plenary committee. The section of Czechs and Slovaks was headed by Pavel Josef Šafařík, the Poles and Ruthenians by Karol Libelt, and the South Slavs by Pavo Stamatović. Czech liberal Palacký was the president and moving force behind the Congress, aided by deputies Jerzy Lubomirski from Galicia and Stanko Vraz from Slovenia.
The exact goal of the congress was unclear. The conference planners even quarreled over its format and the agenda, an indication of how difficult it would be for the Slavic factions to come together, revealing political divisions which disappointed many participants. Naturally, the early sessions were marked by discontentment with the vague agenda. Dr. Josef Frič of the Czech section argued that the “primary goal is the preservation of Austria,” whereas Ľudovít Štúr saw in it "self-preservation."
For the South Slavs, the danger of Magyarization was the primary concern, which led to an inevitable conflict with the Poles, who pursued regeneration of the independent Polish state within the boundaries of 1772 and the right to a sovereign country. Polish aspirations were favored by the younger Czech democrats but were in conflict with the political interests of most of the Czech politicians, who advocated Austroslavism—transformation of the Hapsburg monarchy into a federal state, where Slavic nations would forego full political independence in favor of cultural freedom within Austria. This idea also suited the Serbs and Croats, who were likewise under Hapsburg domination and threatened by Hungarian nationalism. In 1848 and 1849, Czechs, with Palacký at the head, were alarmed by the vision of a united Germany whose boundaries would include the Czech lands.
On the other hand, some Czech politicians, such as Václav Hanka, saw the best future for the Slavic people in their gathering around Russia. This earned a partial approval among the southern Slavs and Ruthenians in Galicia, but certainly not so with the Poles, who were threatened by the expansion and strengthening of the tsarist Russia, their neighbor to the east. The Poles even tried to mediate between Slavs and Hungarians.
The Ruthenian delegates representing the Supreme Ruthenian Council (Holovna Rus'ka Rada) in Lvov stated their grievances against the Poles and publicly presented a demand to divide Galicia into eastern (Ruthenian) and western (Polish) parts. The Polish and Czech delegates were against this division, and so was Bakunin. Finally, thanks to the efforts of Leon Sapieha, representing the Ruthenian Assembly (Rus'kyy Sobor), comprised of Poles of Ruthenian origin, a Polish-Ruthenian compromise was signed on June 7, 1848. It stipulated that Galicia would remain undivided until appropriate decisions were taken by the local Diet, both nations having equal rights, especially language-wise; the official language in regional offices and schools would be one spoken by the majority of inhabitants of that region; and the Uniate clergy would enjoy the same rights as the Roman Catholic Church. The latter requirement was not approved.
On June 5, Libelt proposed a new agenda with three objectives:
The "Manifesto to the European peoples" was a Polish accomplishment led by Libelt and Moraczewski, who prepared a politically and socially radical counter-proposal to the adulatory address to the Austrian emperor proposed by the Czechs. It became the basis of the final version of the "Manifesto" worked out by Libelt and Palacký, assisted by Moraczewski, Lucjan Siemienski, Bakunin, and František Zach.
Although many radical fragments were removed under the pressure of moderate Czech delegates, the "Manifesto" was important because of its emphasis on the superiority of national rights over international treaties. The delegates pledged readiness to acknowledge and support equal rights of all nations, regardless of their political power, and called on all Slavonic nations to organize a general congress of European peoples so that they could "regulate their international relationships on a one-to-one equal basis… before the reactionary politics of some cabinets succeeded in stirring again hate and jealousy of one nation against the other."'
Regarding statehood requirements, the “Manifesto” sought transformation of the monarchy into a federation of equal nations. Under the Polish influence, the initially strong anti-German tendencies were accommodated, and the right of German-speaking peoples outside Germany to cooperate with the inhabitants of Germany was acknowledged. The Slavs did not look for any type of revenge. Rather, they wanted to “extend a brotherly hand to all neighboring nations who are prepared to recognize and effectively champion with us the full equality of all nations, irrespective of their political power or size.” (Orton 1978, p. 88)
On June 12, the draft of the "Manifesto" was approved, with the final session scheduled for June 14. However, street fighting broke out shortly after noon of the 12th, and the week-long scuffles that followed disrupted the Congress. Most of the delegates left Prague; some were arrested and expelled. This later became known as the Whitsuntide events because of the timing during the Christian holiday of Pentecost.
Unfortunately, the Pan-Slav Congress met in a highly charged atmosphere, as young inhabitants of Prague likewise had been influenced by revolutions elsewhere and had taken to the streets. The previous month, the reactionary military commander Alfred Prince Windischgrätz returned to Prague, which radical Czech students viewed as a provocation, and on June 12, while the Congress was underway, they organized an outdoor "Slavic" mass. After the mass, skirmishes with Windischgrätz's soldiers started, and in the commotion, a stray bullet killed his wife. Enraged, Windischgrätz seized the city, dispersed the Congress, and established martial law throughout the province of Bohemia.
Beginning in July 1848, political events were increasingly unfavorable to the liberation aspirations of suppressed Slavs, and so the "Manifesto" did not change the course of political events. Still, it charted a new concept of regulating international relations in Europe, with inspiration taken from the French Revolution.
The four most important individuals of the Congress were František Palacký as the president, Karol Libelt as the chairman of the Poles and Ukrainians, Pavao Stamatović as the chairman of the South Slavs, and Pavel Josef Šafařík as the chairman of the Czechs and Slovaks.
František Palacký (1798 – 1876) is considered the "Father of the Czech Nation," an attribute he received during his life. He chose to be an historian to aid the process of the Czech National Revival, a movement aimed to revive the Czech language, culture, and history. He had not only called for the cooperation of the Hapsburg Slavs but had also endorsed the Hapsburg monarchy as the most reasonable political formation to protect the peoples of central Europe (Austroslavism). He would not endorse the desire of Germans for national unity on grounds that it would weaken the Hapsburg state. He believed that "…if it were not that Austria had long existed, it would be necessary, in the interest of Europe, in the interest of humanity itself, to create it.” However, in response to Austria’s reluctance to ensure equality for individual nations in the monarchy, he expressed confidence that the Czechs could prosper as a nation by themselves: “We were around before Austria and will continue to be so even when it is gone.”
Palacký's impact on the revival movement lies in his History of the Czech Nation (Dějiny národu českého). Besides outlining historical facts from the nation's origin until the start of the Hapsburg monarchy in 1526, he set out to stimulate national consciousness in his people. He stressed the importance of maintaining a high moral level as a nation. His work proved that “Whenever we were winning, it was always through the predominance of spirit rather than physical power; and whenever we were succumbing, it was always the lack of spiritual activity, moral brevity, and courage that was at fault." His funeral was described as greater than a royal one.
Pavel Josef Šafařík(1795 – 1861), a poet, scientist, literary historian, historian, ethnographer, and Slavic philologist of the European extent, was one of the major figures of the Czech and Slovak national revival movements. He was the founder of Slavic ethnography. While most of his fellow revivalists favored Russia as the head of Slavs, he defended the rights of individual Slavic nations in the formation of their national destinies and heritage; he took the side of Poland in their strife for an independent nation. In his scientific work he defended Slavs, who were downtrodden and considered inferior by the Austrian monarchs. He envisioned the Slovak language as a vernacular used by Slovak Lutherans, which was close to the Czech language. He is lauded as a man who loved the truth, and he went to great pains to discover and prove it.
Karol Libelt took part in Poland's failed "November Uprising" against Russia in 1830. He took part in various secret organizations supporting the independence of Poland (Polish National Committee and Revolutionary Committee) and later became a member of the Frankfurt Parliament. In 1849 he was elected a member of the Prussian parliament and became the director of the liberal Dziennik Polski (Polish Daily). The following year Libelt began organizing various scientific and social organizations in Greater Poland, including the Society of Friends of the Sciences in Poznań, which became a de facto university. Between 1868 and 1875 he headed the Society and gave lectures in aesthetics. In his philosophical works, Libelt described Polish Messianism, a belief that the history of the world would be redeemed by the Polish people, who gained moral excellence because of the suffering of their motherland. Libelt believed in the existence of a super-rational cognitive power, visible through art.
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