Prague Slav Congress

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In early June 1848 an assembly of liberal intellectuals drawn from the various Slavic nationalities in central and east central Europe met in Prague to discuss civil rights and liberal constitutional reform for the Habsburg Monarchy. Nearly four hundred attended, and they were organized into three regional sections: (1) Czechs and Slovaks, (2) Poles and Ukrainians, and (3) South Slavs. The Russians who participated sat with the Polish-Ukrainian section.

In early spring 1848, Slavic intellectuals in central Europe grew concerned about German liberal efforts to create a large united Germany and the steps of Magyar liberal nationalists to establish Magyar-led self-government for Hungary. Speaking for Czech nationalists, the historian František Palacký rejected German liberals' invitation to participate in the Frankfurt parliament, and instead called for a reform of the Habsburg Monarchy to win civil rights and representative government for its Slavic peoples. Other liberal Slavic intellectuals in the monarchy took up this "Austro-Slav" policy. Writing in Ljudevit Gaj's Croatian newspaper, Novine Dalmatinsko-Hervatsko-Slavonske (The Dalmatian-Croatian-Slavonian news), Ivan Kukuljević-Sakcinski issued a call on 20 April for broader political cooperation among the Slavs and a meeting of their representatives to chart liberal reforms and counter the expansive nationalist initiatives of German and Magyar liberals. He proposed that such a conclave take place in Prague and include representatives from the Habsburg, Ottoman, and tsarist empires. At the same time Czech and Slovak liberals began discussions of a similar idea. By 30 April a preparatory committee for a Slavic congress had formed in Prague, and it approved an announcement for such a congress to convene on 30 May.

From the outset Palacký exercised a strong influence on the preparatory committee, and he emerged as the leading figure of the congress. The preparatory committee committed itself to advance Slavic interests through reform of the Habsburg Monarchy and to defend its territorial integrity from potential German or Russian ambitions. The organizers directed the call to participate primarily to representatives of the Slavic nationalities within the monarchy, but spokesmen of other Slavic groups outside the Habsburg realm were welcome to attend as guests. The committee's commitment to preserving the Habsburg Monarchy required that limits be placed on discussions of Polish nationalist aspirations. The organizers tried to reassure Habsburg authorities of their loyalty and their desire to preserve the monarchy, but the ministers in Austria's new liberal cabinet, German liberals in Austria and Germany, and Habsburg military authorities were suspicious or openly hostile to what they feared was a Pan-Slav conspiracy to change the map of central Europe.

A total of 340 delegates came to Prague for the congress by the end of May: 61 in the Polish-Ukrainian section, 42 in the South Slav section, and 237 in the Czech-Slovak section. Forty-five additional guests and observers participated as well (Orton, 1978, p. 63). The participants met for discussions in plenary sessions and in loose roundtable sessions divided into the three regional sections. The congress convened on 2 June, and Palacký, as president, gave the opening speech, calling for the pursuit of equality and justice for the Slavic peoples and expressing respect for the Habsburg emperor. The formal proceedings were conducted in the various Slavic languages of the participants, although German journalists quickly spread the claim that German had to be used because of the multiplicity of languages represented.

from "the manifesto to the nations of europe"

[The Slav] demands neither conquest nor dominion, but he asks for liberty for himself and all others: he demands that liberty shall be unconditionally recognized as the most sacred right that man possesses. Therefore we Slavs reject and hold in abhorrence all dominion based on main force and evasion of the law; we reject all privi leges and prerogatives as well as all political differentiation of classes; we demand unconditional equality before the law, an equal measure of rights and duties for all….

… [T]he German threatens many a Slavonic people with violence if it will not agree to assist in the upbuilding of the political greatness of Germany, and thus the Magyar is not ashamed to arrogate to himself exclusive national rights in Hungary. We Slavs utterly decry all such pretensions, and we reject them the more emphatically the more they are wrongfully disguised in the garb of freedom.

Source: English translation by William Beardmore, in Slavonic and East European Review 26, no. 67 (1948): 309–313.

The congress was cut short by the heavy street fighting that broke out in Prague between Habsburg imperial troops and Czech students and workers on Monday, 12 June. By that point, only one major document had been approved, "The Manifesto to the Nations of Europe." Some of the more radical congress participants, such as the Pole Karol Libelt and the Russian Mikhail Bakunin, advocated far-reaching democratic changes in central and east central Europe under a broad Slavic alliance; but the congress followed the moderate liberal course charted by the Czech leaders. The manifesto called for the recognition of individual liberty, freedom of speech and political action, and the development of nations and national interests as fundamental rights. It rejected authoritarian government and German and Magyar national domination of the Slavic nationalities; the Habsburg imperial state must be transformed fundamentally as a confederation of equal nations based on liberty and enlightened policies. The manifesto also condemned the partition of Poland and called for a general European congress of nations to take up all outstanding international questions. On 13 June 1848, the Habsburg military authorities began expelling congress delegates from Prague, and no new Slav congress was attempted again until the 1867 meeting in Moscow.

See alsoAustria-Hungary; Bakunin, Mikhail; Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia; Jelačić, Josip; Nationalism; Palacký, František.


Haselsteiner, Horst, ed. The Prague Slav Congress 1848: Slavic Identities. Boulder, Colo., and New York, 2000. Essays on important ideological and political aspects of the congress.

Klíma, Arnošt. "The Revolution of 1848 in Bohemia." In The Opening of an Era: 1848, edited by François Fejtö, 281–297. London, 1948. Reprint, New York, 1973. Classic short account of the 1848 revolution in Prague and Bohemia.

Kohn, Hans. Pan-Slavism: Its History and Ideology. 2nd ed., rev. New York, 1960. Classic study of the ideology and politics of Pan-Slav movement.

Kořalka Jiří Frantisek Palacký (1798–1876). Prague, 1998. Comprehensive biography by a leading Czech historian.

Orton, Lawrence D. "Did the Slavs Speak German at Their First Congress?" Slavic Review 33, no. 3 (1974): 515–521. Examines and refutes the old myth about the use of German at the congress.

——. The Prague Slav Congress of 1848. Boulder, Colo., and New York, 1978. Sound overview of the convening and proceedings of the congress.

——. "Palacký at the Slav Congress of 1848." East European Quarterly 15, no. 1 (spring 1981): 15–28. Thoughtful treatment of the role of Palacký in the congress.

Pech, Stanley Z. The Czech Revolution of 1848. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1969. Best full English-language account of Czech political activity in 1848.

Plaschka, Richard Georg. "Zur Einberufung des Slawenkongresses 1848." Archiv für Österreichische Geschichte 125 (1966): 196–207. Analyzes the preparations and convening of the congress.

Polišenský, Josef. Aristocrats and the Crowd in the Revolutionary Year 1848: A Contribution to the History of Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Austria. Albany, N.Y., 1980. Offers fresh insights into the actions of the proponents and opponents of the 1848 revolution in the Bohemian lands and Austria.

Urban, Otto. Česká společnost, 1848–1918. Prague, 1982; translated into German by Henning Schlegel as Die tschechische Gesellschaft 1848 bis 1918. Vienna, 1994. Excellent general treatment of Czech politics and society in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Gary B. Cohen