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Vienna flag riot, 1798 (Austria)

Last modified: 2022-12-27 by martin karner
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From a French-language web page by Robert Ouvrard:

On Bonaparte's proposal, the Directoire appointed in 1798 was General Bernadotte Ambassador of France in Vienna. On 8 February 1798, Bernadotte settled in the Embassy, located in Palace Caprara-Geymuller in Wallner Street. On 13 April, around 7 p.m., Bernadotte ordered to hoist the French tricolor flag on the balcony of his residence. A mob rapidly gathered in the street and asked the flag to be removed. Heated exchanges occurred between the mob and the Embassy staff gathered on the balcony. The mob was tediously contained by the guards. Bernadotte himself, wearing his uniform and the Tricolore cocarde, went down into the street, with sword drawn. The Austrian police arrived and discussion took place in Bernadotte's office. Bernadotte definitively refused to take down the flag. In the street, picket lines of cavalry and infantry attempted to prevent the demonstrators to attack the Embassy. Stones were thrown at the windows. The municipal authorities mobilized the garrison and the gates of the Embassy were locked. Bernadotte took refuge in the nunciatura, located Am Hof, in the neighborhood. He sent a protest letter to the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and required the surroundings of the Embassy to be cleared. Bernadotte eventually came back to the Embassy, where he was rejoined by Baron von Degelmann, recently appointed Ambassador of Austria in Paris.

In the meantime, the situation deteriorated: the French flag was torn down and partially burned. The mob broke down the Embassy gate, broke the windows, dragged out coaches in the street and trashed them until the police took them away. The ransacking was stopped by the Austrian army, who settled in the stairs in order to guard Bernadotte's room. A few shots were exchanged but nobody was harmed. The calm was restored around 2 PM. Bernadotte, however, did not calm down. The next morning, he asked for his passports at the Hofburg and refused the mediation of the Court. Instead of leaving Vienna by night, as advised by the authorities, he decided to leave on 15 April around noon with five state coaches. He left with all the honours due to his diplomatic rank and a military escort ensured his safety on the Austrian territory. Close to the Embassy, the street named Fahnengasse (Flag Street) still commemorates the incident.

The aforementioned website shows a plate by Johann Balzer (1738-1799) entitled "Description of the riot caused by the French Ambassador Bernadotte when he hosted the French Tricolor flag in Vienna, 13 April 1798". Original of the plate is kept at the Vienna Historical Museum. Interestingly, the plate shows a Tricolor flag *horizontally* divided. This *horizontally* divided flag might be an erroneous representation by Balzer. The French Tricolor flag was relatively new in 1798 and Balzer might not have been an ocular witness of the riot and might have reconstructed the flag from a vague oral description. However, it is known that the French Tricolor flag did not have a fixed design in the first years after his adoption. It is therefore highly possible that Balzer showed the flag *actually* used by Bernadotte, either seen by himself or correctly reported by a rioter. From the black and white plate, it is not possible to ascertain which colour was used for the upper and lower stripes, respectively.
Ivan Sache, 7 July 2002

A few words on the historical background of the riot. The Imperial Austrian Army was severely defeated by the Italy Army (Armée d'Italie) led by a General called Bonaparte. This was the beginning of Bonaparte's political career, and he did not obey the orders given by the Directoire, then French Government. The Directoire later decided to send him further away and launched the campaign of Egypt. By the treaty of Campoformio (17 October 1797) imposed by Bonaparte, Austria lost Belgium and Lombardia. The Austrians had also probably not forgotten the execution of Queen of France Marie-Antoinette (1755-1793), the daughter of Empress Maria-Theresa, nicknamed by her enemies "The Austrian". The Tricolor flag was the symbol of the French Republic, and all the European absolute monarchies were threatened by the propagation of the revolutionary ideas in their countries. Therefore, Bernadotte's act, even if in compliance with the diplomatic rules, was considered as a provocation.
Ivan Sache, 8 July 2002

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