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Waiting for the Executioner in 1848 Austria Regime change and the case for clemency

November 1, 2021

In 1848, the Austrian Empire was ruled by the absolutist equivalent of a lame-duck emperor. In March, a peaceful demand for civil rights escalated into a full-fledged revolution. The emperor and his advisors were forced to flee the capital city of Vienna.


It was a strange situation. An emperor ruled in God’s name, in a country where just about everyone accepted his divine right to rule and the fundamental superiority of members of the ruling dynasty and, beyond them, aristocratic elites, over other mere mortals.


Emperor Ferdinand I was 54 years old at the time when the revolt started. He was a kindly but sickly man who suffered from epilepsy, hydrocephalus, and a speech impediment. His father, fearing he would be incapable of effective rule by himself, had provided him with a council of three regents. Ferdinand’s many advisors notwithstanding, he was still an absolute ruler. And one of his rights and duties was to decide, personally, the fate of each and every person in his empire who was sentenced to death in a court of law.


Murder convictions, in old Austria, came with automatic death sentences. But those death sentences were not automatically carried out. The emperor signed every death sentence after studying a report from the minister of justice that provided the necessary background information on the case. The minister of justice would conclude his reports with a recommendation: either clemency, commuting the death sentence to a prison term, or execution, “letting justice run its course.”


These reports could run quite long, so the emperor’s staff would provide summaries, including the opinions of the three courts that had weighed in on capital cases before they came across his desk: the court of first instance, the appellate court, and the supreme court. These briefs informed him of any internal disagreements among the judges and of the recommendation made by the minister of justice, the most powerful voice influencing the emperor in these matters.

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About the Author

Mary Elise Sarotte

Mary Elise Sarotte

Associate

Sarotte earned her AB at Harvard University and her Ph.D. at Yale University. After graduate school, she served as a White House Fellow and subsequently joined the faculty of the University of ...
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