Habsburg Dynasty

Habsburg Dynasty
   One of Europe’s great dynasties, the Habsburgs were a royal and imperial Austro‑German family that ruled Austria from 1282 until 1918. The Habsburgs also controlled Hungary and Bohemia from 1526 to1918 and ruled Spain and its empire from 1504 to 1506 and again from 1516 to 1700. The family name is derived from the Habichtsburg, or “Hawk’s Castle,” erected around 1000 in the Aargau region of Switzerland. From southwest Germany the family extended its holdings to the eastern reaches of the Holy Roman Empire, roughly today’s Austria.
   After 1521, the family split into the Austrian and the Spanish Habsburgs. The Austrian line held the title of Roman Emperor, as well as their hereditary lands and the kingdoms of Bohemia and Hungary; the Spanish Habsburgs ruled over Spain, the Netherlands, the Habsburgs’ Italian possessions, and Portugal. With this enormous empire, the Habsburgs inherited a bulk of problems. Cooperation between Spanish and Imperial Habsburgs in the seventeenth century failed to maintain the hegemony that the dynasty had enjoyed in the sixteenth century. During these two centuries, the Habsburgs were preoccupied with halting the Ottoman advance into Europe. The Spanish Habsburgs died out in 1700.
   In 1806, the Holy Roman Empire was ended by Napoleon Bonaparte’s reorganization of the German states into the Confederation of the Rhine. Because of the possibility that Napoleon could be elected Roman Emperor, Franz II took steps to protect Habsburg interests. To guarantee his family’s continued imperial status, he adopted a new hereditary title, Emperor of Austria, in 1804, thus becoming Franz I of Austria. To preclude the possibility of Napoleon’s election, he officially dissolved the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. The Congress of Vienna, 1814–1815, then redrew the map of Europe. The Holy Roman Empire was replaced with a German Confederation, and Austria’s Emperor held the permanent presidency of the confederation. Franz I’s conservative outlook set the parameters especially for domestic policy, which Franz personally controlled until his death in 1835. The state council that Franz selected to rule in the name of his mentally incompetent son Ferdinand I ensured the continuance of his policies until revolution shocked Habsburg rule in 1848. Ferdinand abdicated on December 2, 1848, and his 18-year-old nephew was crowned Emperor Franz Joseph I. He would rule Austria for no less than 68 years.
   In 1854, Franz Joseph married Duchess Elisabeth of the Bavarian House of Wittelsbach. She bore him four children: three daughters and the crown prince, Rudolf, who, in contrast with his conservative, if not reactionary, father, held liberal views. In 1881, he married Princess Stephanie of Belgium, daughter of King Leopold II. By the time their only child was born in 1883, the couple had drifted apart, and Rudolf found solace in drink and female companionship.
   Rudolf’s death, apparently through suicide, along with that of his mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera, in 1889 at the estate of Mayerling near Vienna, made international headlines and fueled conspiracy rumors. According to official reports, their deaths were a result of Franz Joseph’s demand that the couple end the relationship. Rudolf was declared to have been in a state of mental imbalance. Many people, however, doubted the veracity of the reports and claimed that Rudolf had been murdered as part of a conspiracy. Rudolf’s death was an extremely grim chapter in the long line of outbreaks of mental instability in the Habsburg Dynasty caused by inbreeding. One younger brother to Franz Joseph, Archduke Viktor Ludwig, spent most of his life exiled, following scandals involving dressing up in women’s clothes. Franz Joseph’s brother, Archduke Maximilian, was crowned Emperor of Mexico, but his regime was overcome by insurgents after the French Emperor Napoleon III had withdrawn military aid for Maximilian. He was captured and executed on June 19, 1867.
   In 1867, autonomy was given to Hungary under the terms of the Ausgleich or “compromise,” turning the empire into the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. The December Constitution of 1867 placed no significant restrictions on the Emperor with regard to foreign and military affairs. Franz Joseph thus remained the ultimate arbiter of all important decisions. After the death of Crown Prince Rudolf, Franz Joseph’s nephew, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, became heir to the throne. His marriage to the low-ranking Countess Sophie Chotek was permitted only after the couple had agreed that their children would have no access to the throne. Franz Ferdinand, an impatient and cynical character, had a strained relationship with the aged emperor and established a shadow government at his place of residence, the Belvedere Palace in Vienna. He alienated many sections of Austro-Hungarian political opinion with vague plans to be carried out after his accession to the throne. Both supporters and opponents of Austria-Hungary’s dualist structure were suspicious of his ideas for a reform of the monarchy. When Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, the attack on Habsburg imperial continuity led to a Great Power diplomatic crisis and ultimately a war of unprecedented scale.
   The death of Franz Joseph on November 21, 1916 then deprived Austria-Hungary of his symbolic unifying presence. His grand-nephew Charles I, age 29, became his successor but was unprepared for the role. Although Charles was a pious Catholic of conciliatory nature, his good intentions were not reinforced by gifts beyond the ordinary. He was unable to put forward a meaningful program of reform and could not resist the centrifugal forces pulling the monarchy apart. On November 11, 1918, he renounced his state duties but did not abdicate his throne. He fled to Switzerland after Austria-Hungary had collapsed. Encouraged by Hungarian nationalists, Charles sought twice to reclaim the throne of Hungary, but failed. He died in exile in 1922. In Austria and Hungary, the monarchies were abolished and republics established. The Austrian parliament expelled the Habsburgs and confiscated all the official property in 1919.
   See also <>; <>; <>; <>.
    Beller, Steven. Francis Joseph. London, New York: Longman, 1996;
    Bérenger, Jean. A History of the Habsburg Empire. London, New York: Longman, 1994;
    Cassels, Lavender. Clash of Generations: A Habsburg Family Drama in the Nineteenth Century. London: J. Murray, 1973;
    Fichtner, Paula Sutter. The Habsburg Empire. From Dynasticism to Multinationalism. Malabar, FL: Krieger, 1997;
    Macartney, Carlile A. The Habsburg Empire, 1790–1918. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1971;
    Okey, Robin. The Habsburg Monarchy. c. 1765–1918 from Enlightenment to Eclipse. Basingstoke: MacMillan Press, 2001.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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