Anton Ritter von Schmerling (August 23, 1805 in Lichtental, Vienna – May 23, 1893 in Vienna), Austrian statesman, was born at Vienna, where his father held a high position on the judicial side of the civil service.
After studying law at Vienna, in 1829 Schmerling entered the public service, and during the next eighteen years was constantly occupied, chiefly in Lower Austria. In 1847, as a member of the lesser nobility, he entered the Estates of Lower Austria and took an active part in the Liberal movement for administrative and constitutional reform of which they were the center. On the outbreak of the revolution in Vienna in March 1848, when the mob broke into the Assembly, Schmerling was one of the deputation which carried to the palace the demands of the people, and during the next few days he was much occupied in organizing the newly formed National Guard. At the end of the month he was sent by the ministry to Frankfurt as one of the men of public confidence.
He soon succeeded Count Colloredo as president of the diet, and in this capacity officially transferred to Archduke John, who had been elected regent of Germany, the powers of the Diet. For this he was violently attacked in the German parliament by the extreme Radicals; but on this and other occasions (he had himself been elected to the parliament) he defended himself effectively because he depended not on eloquence but on a recognition of what has been called the irony of facts to which the parliament as a whole was so blind. He was the first and the most influential member of the ministry which the regent formed; he held the ministry of the interior and, later, also that of foreign affairs, and it was almost entirely due to him that at least for a short time this phantom government maintained some appearance of power and dignity.
A defeat in the parliament when he defended the armistice of Malmö led to his resignation; but he was immediately called to office again, with practically dictatorial power, in order to quell the revolt which broke out in Frankfurt on September 18. His courage and resolution averted what nearly became a terrible catastrophe. It was his hope to establish in Germany the supremacy of a Liberal and reformed Austria. This brought him into opposition to the party of Prussian supremacy; and when they attained a majority, he resigned, and was succeeded by Heinrich von Gagern. He remained at Frankfurt, holding the post of Austrian envoy, and was the leader of the so-called Great German party (Grossdeutschen) until the dissolution of the Kremsier Parliament showed that the forces of reaction had conquered at Vienna and shattered all hopes of Austria attaining the position he had hoped for her.
After the abortive election of king Frederick William IV of Prussia to be emperor, he, with the other Austrians, left Frankfurt. On his return to Vienna he became minister of justice, and the reforms which he carried out added to his reputation. His popularity among all Liberals was increased by his resignation in 1851, as a protest against the failure of the government to establish the constitution they had promised. During the-next few years he was judge of the supreme court of appeal. When his forecast was fulfilled, and the system of absolutism broke down, he became minister in January 1862.
His first act was the publication of the constitution by which the whole of the empire was to be organized as a single state with a parliamentary government. The experiment failed, chiefly because of the opposition of the Croatians and Magyars, whom he bitterly offended by his celebrated saying that Hungary could wait. Faults of manner, natural in a man whose life had been spent as an official and a judge, prevented him from keeping together the German Liberals as a strong and united party; he was opposed by a powerful faction at court, and by the Clerical leaders. After the first few months, emperor Franz Joseph I gave him only a very lukewarm support; and with his retirement in 1865 the attempt to carry out the ideals of Joseph II to Germanize while he liberalized the whole of the empire, and to compel Hungarians, Poles, Czechs and Croatians to accept a system in which the government of the whole should be carried on by a German-speaking parliament and bureaucracy, failed. The constitution of 1862, though suspended on Schmerling's fall, was still regarded as legally valid for the Cisleithanian territories, and is the basis on which the present constitution for half the empire was framed.
On his retirement he returned to his judicial duties; in 1867 he was made life-member of the Upper House (Herrenhaus) in the Reichsrat, of which he became vice-president, and in 1871 president. This post he laid down in 1879, and came forward as leader of the Liberal German opposition to the administration of Count Taaffe. In 1891 he retired from public life, and died at Vienna on May 23, 1893.
In 1835 Schmerling married Pauline, a daughter of Field-Marshal-Lieutenant Baron von Koudelka. She was distinguished by her literary and artistic abilities, at that time rare in the Austrian capital, but she died young in 1840, leaving two daughters.
See Arneth, Anton v. Schmerling (Prague, 1895). This contains a full account of Schmerling's life during 1848-1849, but does not deal with his later life. Constantin von Wurzbach, Biographisches Lexicon des Kaiserthums Österreich; Friedjung, Der Kampf um die Vorherrschaft in Deutschland; Rogge, Geschichte Österreichs.