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National Romanticism: The Formation of National Movements

Balazs Trencsenyi
Michal Kopecek

Chapter II. Spirit of the Nation: Customs, Language, Religion

Austria as it is

Charles Sealsfield

Texte intégral

1Title of text: Austria as It Is: Or, Sketches of Continental Courts. By an Eye Witness

2Originally published: London, Hurst, Chance, and Co., 1828

3Language: English

4Excerpts used are from Austria as It Is: Or, Sketches of Continental Courts. By an Eye Witness (London: Hurst, Chance, and Co., 1828), pp. v–vi, 51– 52, 144, 152, 154–155, 209–210.

About the author

5Charles Sealsfield (real name Karl Magnus Postl, other pseudonym used C. Si-dons) [1793, Poppitz, (Cz. Popice, today Czech Republic) – 1864, Solothurn (Switzerland)]: writer and journalist. He was the first son of a well-to-do Moravian-German farmer and wine-grower. Following his mother’s wishes, he entered the service of the church. After finishing the gymnasium at Znaim (Cz. Znojmo), he went to Prague and registered at a college belonging to the Knights of the Cross. In 1813 Sealsfield entered the cloister as a novice, and in 1814 he was ordained a priest. In Prague he became acquainted with the religious teachings of Bernard Bolzano (1781–1848), who influenced much of his early thinking. In 1823 Sealsfield went to Vienna and attempted to obtain the position of a private secretary in the service of the government. Having failed to obtain the job and after clashing with the Austrian authorities, he fled to the United States via Switzerland and France. In 1828 Sealsfield began to contribute to Morgenblatt (Morning paper), the literary supplement edited by Wolfgang Menzel (1798–1873), the critical forerunner of the ‘Junges Deutschland’ (Young Germany) movement. It was Menzel who in Literaturblatt (Literary Page) (1838) first recognized the literary qualities of Sealsfield’s writings. In 1830 Sealsfield became editor of the Courrier des États Unis, a journal which popularized French revolutionary ideas in America. In the 1830s he published anonymously several successful novels. He preserved his anonymity until 1845, when he published the first edition of his ‘Collected works’ under the name of Charles Sealsfield. Many contemporary critics believed him to be an American— born of German parents. In 1831 he returned to Europe, lived in Paris and London and worked for Joseph Bonaparte (1768–1844), who was at the time in exile in America. From 1832 until the end of his life, Sealsfield lived in Switzerland. While Sealsfield is considered an important representative of German literature of the ‘Vormärz’ era, he also played an important role in the development of American literature, as he was one of the first authors to deal with the cultural encounter between Anglo-Saxons and Native Americans in his novels.

6Main works: Die Vereinigten Staaten von Nordamerika, nach ihren politischen, religiösen und gesellschaftlichen Verhältnissen betrachtet [The United States of America observed from the perspective of its political, religious and social relations] (1827); Austria as it is: Or, Sketches of Continental Courts (1828); Tokeah; or the White Rose (1828), which was translated into German as Der Legitime und die Republikaner (1833); Der Virey und die Aristokraten oder Mexiko im Jahre 1812 [The Viceroy and the aristocrats, or Mexico in the year 1812] (1835); Die große Tour [The Grand Tour] (1835); Lebensbilder aus beiden Hemisphären [Pictures from both Hemispheres] (1835–1837); Neue Land- und Seebilder oder die deutsch-amerikanischen Wahlverwandtschaften [New land and sea pictures, or German-American elective affinities] (1839–1840); Das Cajütenbuch, oder Nationale Charakteristiken [The cabin book or national characteristics] 2 vols., (1841); Süden und Norden [South and North] (1842–1843).


7Between 1815 and 1848 the political and cultural life of the Austrian Empire was marked by two intertwining phenomena. On the one hand, conservatism and the anti-revolutionary policies devised by Prince Metternich (1773– 1859) dominated the political sphere. On the other hand, the style known as ‘Biedermeier’ (initially the name of a fictional character, invented by the Swabian humorist Ludwig Eichrodt in 1855 to express the pious and composed character of the civic culture in the Austrian Empire before 1848) characterized cultural life. Metternich began his career under Francis II (I), the last emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (1792–1806) and the first emperor of Austria (1804–1835). At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the emerging new European order was based on two principles: restoration of prerevolutionary values and a political system which could safeguard the monarchies of Europe from the revolutionary changes brought about by the French Revolution. Metternich’s diplomacy proved successful during the Congress of Vienna (September 1814–June 1815) and ‘The Holy Alliance’ of Austria, Russia and Prussia was created to confine national and liberal movements within Europe. After 1815, Metternich became the symbol of the new political order. It was only the revolution of 1848 that eventually terminated his prominence in Austrian politics.

8One of the most important features of the cultural atmosphere of the period was the apolitical inclination of the cultural elite. The literature of the time was thus dominated by a feeling of resignation, based on self-control and conformity. Although Biedermeier literature consisted primarily of poetry, theater also flourished in Vienna, despite strict censorship laws, as illustrated by the plays of Ferdinand Raimund (1790–1836), Johann Nepomuk Nestroy (1801–1862) or Franz Grillparzer (1791–1872). In many ways, the predilection for detachment and seclusion in the private sphere as advocated by the Biedermeier elite complemented Metternich’s intention of creating a submissive public sphere. Nevertheless, the withdrawal from politics did not obstruct cultural activity altogether. Although apolitical in its general out-look, literature served as a modality for expressing criticism of Metternich’s political system. Literary works were politicized by resorting to historical and classical allegories, which, in turn, contained disguised political messages. However, the critical and satirical attitude towards the general development of politics in Austria was not revolutionary, since it promoted a pro-Habsburg loyalty, rather than being anti-Metternich.

9Sealsfield gave a completely different criticism of both Metternich’s political system and the cultural submissiveness favored by the Biedermeier style, in his pamphlet Austria as It Is (1828). The book was banned in Austria but in 1834 the German edition was published under the title Seufzer aus Österreich und seinen Provinzen, which was in fact a translation of the French edition L’Autriche telle qu’elle est. Influenced by the American experience and a sympathizer of the French revolutionary ideals, Sealsfield regarded Metternich as a menace to the development of the Austrian Empire and Europe. The influence of the Junges Deutschland (‘Young Germany’) movement is also discernable. Following Heinrich Heine (1797–1856), with whom Sealsfield corresponded, the poets, thinkers and journalists supporting the movement advocated the liberation of politics, religion and manners from old conventional norms. Sealsfield’s criticism of Austria under Metternich was based on the same principles. However, he went further than simply describing Metternich’s rule as a refined despotism and exhibiting support for the restoration of constitutions to the Hungarians and the Czechs. For Sealsfield the political oppression cultivated by Metternich was supported by the introspection and particularism advocated by Biedermeier culture in Austria. Both of them were considered detrimental to the development of cultural and political life. If Metternich’s political system was seen as a form of despotism, encroaching on the development of civic consciousness in Austria, the apolitical attitude adhered to by Biedermeier authors was viewed as lacking the public activism that writers, as critical voices of society, required. In this sense, one can speak of a conflict between the radical potentials of romanticism and the tamer Biedermeier version. All this was colored by Sealsfield’s American experience: his insistence that what Austria needed was a constitution—which should reflect the political demands of her nationalities—was largely derived from his appreciation of American democracy and its constitutional system.

10Sealsfield’s text was greatly praised by reformist and pro-republican circles in Europe during the nineteenth century. As such, it was regarded as one of the most substantial critiques of the Metternich regime, and seen as one of the texts which prefigured the revolutionary events of 1848.


Austria as It Is: Or, Sketches of Continental Courts

12The author of this work is a native of the Austrian Empire; who, after an absence of five years, has re-visited his country, and found its status quo as exhibited in the following pages.

13In presenting his work to the English public, he may be allowed to state that no person can have a more sincere respect for the just rights of monarchs, as long as they are exercised within proper bounds. But if a limited monarchy, where the three powers, legislative, judicial, and executive, are properly separated and exercised, be the most conducive to social happiness, the despotism of Austria, and those kingdoms and principalities influenced by it, and by the Holy Alliance, is of a nature the more shocking, inasmuch as the intellectual progress of these countries indisputably entitles them to the blessings of a liberal and rational government. Never, perhaps, has there been exhibited an example of so complete and refined a despotism in any civilized country as in Austria. [...]

14The character of these peasants is such as one might expect from a people depressed by a crowd of masters, every one of whom thinks himself entitled to make them sensible of their superiority. They are slavish, insidious, treacherous! There is a gloom brooding on the countenance of the Bohemian, or, as he prefers to style himself Czechian, which makes him unfeeling and stubbornly indifferent to your money or your offers; and he rejects every argument except that ad hominem. Music is the only thing which clears up his melancholy brow. It is astonishing what a deep sense the Bohemian of the lowest class has of music. The gloomy stare of his countenance brightens; his sharp grey eyes kindle and beam with fire and sensibility; the whole man is changed. Nothing can exceed the dignity and harmony of the sacred music. [...]

15Never has there been a man more detested and dreaded than Metternich. From the Baltic to the Pyrenees, from the boundaries of Turkey to the borders of Holland, there is but one voice heard respecting this Minister—that of execration. As he was the chief instrument in new modelling the present form of Europe, the author and the mainspring of the Holy Alliance, that embryo of great events, his character and policy deserve our impartial investigation. [...]

16That the Austrian nations desire their constitutions as much as any other people, no person will dispute, from what we see going on in Hungary, Bohemia, Italy, and the Tyrol. But, besides that constitutions are an utter abhorrence to Metternich and his master, these people want their old constitutions. Bohemia wants that granted by Rudolf II.; Hungary would disdain to hear of any other constitution than its own; the Tyrol desires its monarchs to deliver to them their coronation oath, sitting on the Ducal Stone in a field near Innspruck, just as their counts did in the twelfth century; Venice sighs after its Doge; Milan after its Dukes. To satisfy and to manage, at the same time, so many different bodies and interests, would require more pliability than even Metternich is master of. [...]

  • 1 Baron Heinrich Friedrich Karl vom und zum Stein (1757–1831): German statesman, proponent of radica (...)

17We shall forbear long inquiry as to the best course to be pursued with respect to Austria, and willingly allow that this empire and its nations are not yet ripe for a constitution. A constitution, whether extorted by the force of arms from a weak prince, or whether the free gift of a sovereign, will sleep, and not be properly enjoyed by the nation until the materials for its proper use are ready prepared in it: a proportionate division of property and intellectual light. England only made a constant use of its excellent charter, when the feudal power of its barons was broken, property more equally divided, and the nation enlightened. France follows in the same footsteps. Germany has light, but the steps which in Prussia have been taken during the administration of Baron Stein,1 are again in a retrograde movement. The rest of Germany consists of a collection of vast manors belonging to lords, who are called kings and princes; their subjects are little better than tenants. The Austrian empire presents but immense domains of the nobility, and small parcels of land of the peasantry. There is no connecting link between these two extremes of wealth and information, and of poverty and darkness, in a third middle state. A great statesman, such a one as Chatham, Pitt, Sully, Colbert, or Stein, would have sold the immense domains of the crown, of the fund of public worship, of the studies, and of the different corporations to the nation, and thus have created a third order, and the materials for a steady and moral futurity. They would have promoted, at the same time, rational information. The former ministers of France would certainly have pursued a third course, that of a paternal government, an economical retrenchment of the public expenses, re-establishment of order in the finances, strict justice towards the people, a religious adherence to promises and to public faith, and a successive and gradual improvement. They would have proceeded on the road which Francis pursued, and successfully pursued till 1811. This would, perhaps, have been the course most suitable to the present interest of this vast collection of provinces. [...]

18A more fettered being than an Austrian author surely never existed. A writer in Austria must not offend against any Government; nor against any minister; nor against any hierarchy, if its members be influential; nor against the aristocracy. He must not be liberal—nor philosophical—nor humorous— in short, he must be nothing at all. Under the catalogue of offences, are comprehended not only satires, and witticisms; – nay, he must not explain things at all, because they might lead to serious thoughts. If he venture to say anything upon these subjects, it must be done in that devout and reverential tone which befits an Austrian subject, who presumes to lift the veil from these ticklish secrets! What would have become of Shakespeare had he been doomed to live or to write in Austria?


1 Baron Heinrich Friedrich Karl vom und zum Stein (1757–1831): German statesman, proponent of radical reforms in Prussia during the Napoleonic wars.

© Central European University Press, 2007

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