The Summer Of ’48 – The Prague Slavic Congress of 1848

The summer of 1848 must have been an immensely exciting time to be a young liberal in Europe. Of course, the excitement would have been curbed somewhat by the oppression experienced by the young liberals of minority nations in Europe’s empires, but by gum there must have been some exciting fist-banging and brainstorming in the cafes of Europe in 1848.

It was in the wake of the French Revolution, the Communist Manifesto, the Hungarian Revolution and Wisconsin being admitted as the 30th US state (maybe) that the many Slavic voices of Europe came together to shout angrily for the very first time. The Slavic Congress of 1848 was conceived by Ľudovit Štúr and organised by Pavel Šafárik and Josip Jelačić, but it was the tireless work of Czech historian František Palacký that made it a reality.

The exact goal of the congress wasn’t entirely clear, but when has a lack of a goal ever stopped folk getting together to make plans and air grievances? The congress began on June 2 and involved around 300 delegates, the majority of which understandably came from the Czech and Slovak lands. A combined disgust of conservative domestic policies and the desire for freedom brought these men together, a true manifestation of resistance and vigilance in the heart of Europe.

The delegates met in three groups, with the Czech and Slovaks holding court before giving way to the South Slavs and the Poles and Ukrainians. Each group had their own major fears, which only added to the fairly chaotic nature of the congress. Those under Austrian rule feared growing German nationalism, whilst those under Hungarian rule were terrified of growing Magyarisation in their lands. The Poles were desperate for the regeneration of an independent Polish state, whilst the Ruthenians wanted to split Galicia in two. Most of the men were probably gasping for a drink at the end of every day.

On June 5 some semblance of organisation began to take shape, and a new agenda was penned with three clear objectives – to issue a manifesto to the European nations stating the political orientation of the congress, to send the emperor a petition containing a list of Slavic demands, and to draw up plans of further pan-Slavic co-operation. The manifesto was to prioritise national rights over international treaties, and can be looked back on as the first time the Slavs banded together to stand up for each other. They didn’t want revenge – they just wanted equality.

The delegates claimed to understand each other through language and the similarity of their spiritual qualities, and a shared history of oppression and poor treatment. They condemned the privileges and special rights afforded to the upper classes of German society, and abhorred the domination of the landowners by mere force. It made sense really.

One of the major aims of the congress became the desire to restructure the Habsburg Empire into a federation of autonomous peoples of sorts. The Czechs in particular were keen on this, more interested in equal human and language rights as opposed to wanting any sort of violent struggle for full independence.

One June 12 the final draft of the manifesto was approved, with the final session of the congress scheduled for June 14. The immediate future of Europe was on a knife-edge, but the congress never made it to the 14th. The events of the year and increasing radicalisation of Europe’s students meant that referring to the atmosphere in Prague as ‘highly charged’ would be something of an understatement, an atmosphere not helped at all by the recent return of reactionary military commander Alfred Windischgrätz. The radical Czechs saw this as a provocation, and a Slavic protest was organised. The faeces was about to become rather acquainted with the fan.

Skirmishes were inevitable, and skirmishes came whilst the congress was in session. In these skirmishes Windischgrätz’s wife was hit and killed by a stray bullet, and if you think the commander responded with subtlety then you, my friend, are a fool. The iron fist came crashing down, and marital law was established in the Czech lands.

Probably not the best time to be holding a revolutionary Slavic congress, I’m sure you’ll understand. The congress was cut short thanks to the violence on the streets, and a number of delegates were arrested due to the whole revolutionary congress thing. The entire thing lasted just 10 days, and it would be an entirely new century before liberation came to the Slavs of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

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