The Austrian Empire seemed doomed. The Imperialists were demoralised the oppressed exultant. Francis Josef turned to his ministers and begged them to show him how he could continue to wear the Imperial diadem. “Play the despot,” advised Belcredi and Esterhazy and Pouilly – the Old Guard had lived but never learned, but Francis Josef had. It was at last clear to him that if the Empire were to be saved from disruption, freedom and fairplay must be accorded its constituent nationalities – that it must no longer be ruled in the interests of Austria alone. Wherefore the Emperor fired out Pouilly, and looking round for a serviceable man to patch up things, fixed on Baron Beust, a foreigner of some small reputation, to act as Austrian Foreign Minister – or in plain English, to keep the concern from falling to pieces.
Now Beust was not a great man, nor was he a particularly good one. He was no enthusiast for liberty – no idealist – no ardent lover of mankind. He was a mediocre man, very fond of admiring the smallness of his feet, and devoted to a good dinner, but he had an excellent understanding of the value of keeping the peace when unable to fight, and as lie never permitted his prejudices or temper to betray him into a quarrel where he believed the chances were against him, Francis Josef felt that Beust was just the man to fix up the Hungarian question.
Beust was born in Saxony in 1809, and his early life was spent in the minor branches of the diplomatic service. So far as he had any convictions, he was a believer in autocracy, and when he attained high rank in the Saxon diplomatic service, he be- came intensely unpopular with the people. “Be moderate in all things” was one of his favourite maxims, and when his unpopularity grew to a point at which it became dangerous to the stability of the State, Beust jumped jim-crow and saved the Saxon throne by becoming something of a Radical. Thenceforward he enjoyed popularity in his own country, and if he did not secure its greatness, he at least did it no harm. In his new role, he appeared as the defender of the small German States against Prussian aggression, and thus secured for himself the hostility of Bismarck who, while despising his intellect, was not free from apprehension of his bourgeoise cunning. When the Austro-Prussian war broke out, Beust blundered by taking the wrong side, and after Sadowa resigned his office in Saxony to escape the vengeance he felt Bismarck would wreak upon him. This was the man whom, with a clearer insight into character than could have been expected, Francis Josef invited to save the distraught Empire from dismemberment. Beust replied he would, on one condition – that he should never be asked to get up earlier than nine o’clock in the morning, as he went to bed late, and to this the Emperor, who himself rose with the lark, complied. Beust’s first step was to demand an agreement with the Hungarians. “On that,” he said, “the continued existence of the Empire depends,” and even bigoted opponents of Hungarian claims admitted, albeit reluctantly, that this was the case.” Peace with Hungary means the existence or nonexistence of Austria, and it must be concluded without delay,” said one Austrian statesman publicly and frankly. “We must choose between two evils,” said the “Times” of Vienna – the “Nieue Freie Presse” – “capitulation to Hungary is the lesser one.” “Hungary,” said Beust, “is an ancient monarchy, more ancient as such than Austria proper. The Kingdom of St. Stephen has a pedigree of centuries, and its constitutional principle was asserted in the earliest times. Its race and language are entirely different from those of the other peoples which constitute the monarchy. Its people are powerful, brave, united.” But it was no consideration of justice that moved Beust to settle the Hungarian question. The consideration that moved him was that if the Hungarian question were not settled to the liking of the Hungarians, the Hungarians would settle it for themselves by disrupting the Empire. Twenty years later he frankly stated the position: “Austria had been beaten after a short but most disastrous war; Prussia had forbidden her any further interference in German affairs; the country was almost in a state of latent revolution; and an outbreak in Hungary, promoted by foreign agents and foreign gold, with Klapka doing Bismarck’s bidding, was in the highest degree probable, and would, had it occurred, have led to almost overwhelming disaster. Knowing this, I felt bound to advise the Emperor to accede to the views of the Deak party.” Such was the man with whom Francis Deak had now to deal, and with whom he eventually concluded the Ausgleich, or Agreement, by which Hungary was freed from foreign dominion.