Habsburg Empire

Habsburg Empire
   The Habsburg Empire comprised the territories ruled by the Habsburg family, one of the most prominent royal dynasties in European history. The Habsburgs originated in the southwestern regions of the Holy Roman Empire, a conglomeration of territories in central Europe that lasted from the early Middle Ages to the start of the nineteenth century. The name of the dynasty derived in the eleventh century from a castle, the Habichtsburg, or Hawk’s Castle, in what is today the Swiss canton of Aargau. In the following centuries, the Habsburgs lost control over their Swiss holdings but acquired smaller territories in southwestern Germany. The election of Rudolph I as German king and Holy Roman Emperor in 1271 marked the Habsburgs’ rise to political prominence. In 1278, Rudolph seized control of Austria from King Ottokar of Bohemia who was killed by Habsburg forces at the Battle of Marchfeld. In the following centuries, the Habsburgs acquired the Tyrol and Carinthia, elevated themselves to the rank of Archdukes by using a forged document, and formed dynastic relations with the ruling houses of Poland, Bohemia, and Hungary, becoming, as a result, kings of the latter two realms. Effective control over Bohemia was limited by the power of the Bohemian estates, and the situation in Hungary was even more complex, with most of the territory inherited from King Louis (Lajos), who had been killed at the Battle of Mohács in 1526, controlled by the Ottomans or their vassals until the late seventeenth century. From the fifteenth century until the collapse of the Habsburg Empire in 1918, the Austrian, Bohemian, and Hungarian duchies and kingdoms formed the core of Habsburg territory in central Europe.
   The Ascent of the Habsburg Dynasty
   The position of the Habsburgs as one of the most powerful dynasties in Europe rested on their ability to secure election as German kings and Holy Roman emperors from 1438 to 1806 with only a brief interlude in the eighteenth century. Holding the imperial crown enhanced the dynasty’s prestige and allowed the Habsburgs to profit from the loyalty of imperial cities and estates. Another decisive factor in the Habsburgs’ rise as a political force was their success in making politically advantageous marriages. In 1477, Maximilian, the son of Emperor Frederick III, married Mary, the daughter of Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy, and in 1496, their son, Philip the Handsome, married Juana, the daughter of the Catholic monarchs of Spain, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. Through these two matches, Philip and Juana’s son, Charles of Ghent, succeeded his maternal grandfather, Ferdinand, as Charles I, king of Spain, in 1516, and his paternal grandfather, Maximilian, as Charles V, Holy Roman emperor, in 1519. By the end of the sixteenth century, the Habsburgs ruled not only Spain and the empire, but the Netherlands (part of the old Burgundian state), the vast Spanish empire in the Americas, southern Italy, and Portugal. For a time in the 1550s, Charles’s son Philip, as husband to Queen Mary, the daughter of Henry VIII, was also king of England. After Charles’s death in 1558, the Habsburg domains, which had nearly encircled France, the dynasty’s main rival, split into two parts. Descending from Charles’s brother Ferdinand, the Austrian branch, the Casa d ’ Austria, or House of Austria, ruled over the family’s central European possessions and maintained the succession to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire from 1548–56 to 1740. After the Ottoman defeat at the Battle of Vienna in 1683, the Austrian Habsburgs also controlled the Kingdom of Hungary. Descended from Charles’s son Philip, the Spanish branch of the family ruled Spain and much of the Netherlands until 1700. The two branches of the dynasty intermarried frequently to consolidate their possessions and to cooperate in international politics.
   From the point of view of France, with Habsburg domains on its eastern, southern, and northern borders, the dynasty’s dominance was a serious threat to European peace. After the death of Charles II, the last Spanish Habsburg, a bitter fight over succession to his throne led to the War of Spanish Succession (1700–1713), which pitted Austria, in alliance with other states, against France. Although they lost the Spanish Crown to the French House of Bourbon, the Austrian Habsburgs successfully seized the Spanish Netherlands (modern Belgium) and parts of northern and central Italy. After 1713, the center of the Habsburg Empire was Vienna, not Madrid. Because he lacked a male successor, Emperor Charles VI issued the Pragmatic Sanction (1713), which confirmed provisions for a female succession and insisted on the monarchy’s indivisibility. Through concessions, Charles tried to win the approval of the Pragmatic Sanction from the estates in the various Habsburg territories and from other European monarchs. Nevertheless, after his death in 1740, his heir and daughter Maria Theresa had to fight for eight years to secure her rights and titles and to place her husband on the throne of the Holy Roman Empire. Even then, the strategically important and economically valuable province of Silesia was lost to Fredrick II of Prussia; however, Maria Theresa launched a number of important reforms of the bureaucracy, the military, and education. Her son Joseph II tried to modernize and militarize his realm in a more radical fashion but provoked violent opposition in Hungary and the Austrian Netherlands. Joseph’s failure to centralize governmental structures by following the examples set by France and Prussia demonstrated the limits of the dynasty’s grip on power.
   Nationalist and Napoleonic Challenges
   Without the cooperation of the traditional elites in the various kingdoms and lands, the multiethnic Habsburg Empire could not be held together. At the same time, it was the dynasty that provided the indispensable unifying bond. Therefore nationalism and the sovereignty of the people were not only anathema to the dynasty, but a deadly threat to the political survival of the union of lands and crowns ruled by the Habsburgs. Since the late eighteenth century, the Austrians sought to contain or destroy revolutionary and nationalist movements. This policy proved costly. In the wars against revolutionary France and Napoleon from 1789 to 1815, Austria not only lost the Netherlands, southwestern Germany, and northern Italy but, after the defeat at Wagram in 1809, was forced to cooperate with Napoleon to avoid another armed clash with the French emperor. The new Austrian foreign minister, Count Klemens von Metternich, nevertheless decided to break with Napoleon and rejoin the anti-Napoleonic coalition in 1813. Together with his British counterpart, Lord Castlereagh, Metternich worked for a lasting European settlement in 1814–1815, in the wake of Napoleon’s final defeat. The Congress of Vienna in 1815 and the working of the Congress system until the 1820s gave Austria more than its due share of political influence in Europe. In terms of territory, Austria gave up its former possessions in southwestern Germany and the Netherlands. Instead, Salzburg became Austrian and the Habsburgs kept most of the Polish territory acquired in 1774 and 1795. In Italy, Lombardy and Venetia formed a kingdom united with Austria. In 1804, in response to the self-coronation of Napoleon as Emperor of the French, Holy Roman Emperor Francis II claimed the title of hereditary Austrian emperor. Under French pressure, Francis in effect dissolved the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Metternich refrained from any attempt to resurrect the Holy Roman Empire, and in the newly created German Confederation Austria chaired the deliberations of the diet but could not achieve much without Prussian consent. Still, through Metternich’s skilful diplomacy, the Habsburg Empire was able to win the support of Prussia and other German states to use the confederation as a tool to suppress liberal and nationalistic groups in Germany. In Italy there was no equivalent of the German Confederation, so Austria intervened militarily when revolutionary movements threatened to destabilize the Italian states. Austrian antirevolutionary zeal undermined the solidarity among the Great Powers and damaged Austro-British cooperation in the 1820s; Metternich found himself isolated when Britain, France, and Russia fought for the independence of Greece from Turkey in 1827. Austria refrained from a policy of territorial expansion on the Balkan Peninsula and considered the preservation of the Ottoman Empire as indispensable to its own survival. The Habsburg Empire thus acted as the most clear cut case of a status quo power and annexed Kraków only to contain the spread of Polish nationalism. Unable to establish an efficient tax-system, however, the empire suffered from inadequate financial means to play the role of Great Power. Overcommitted and underfinanced, Austria depended on a favorable climate of antirevolutionary consensus and a preference for peaceful crisis settlement among the other Great Powers. Austria’s policy of repression, directed against liberals and nationalists at home and abroad, collapsed in 1848.
   The revolution of 1848-1849 challenged Habsburg rule in several ways. In Vienna, a liberal government replaced Metternich, and an assembly was summoned to deliberate and decide on a new constitution. In Hungary, nationalists took control and were fighting for independence. In Italy, nationalist uprisings and an attack on Piedmont-Sardinia aimed at the expulsion of Austria from the region. With young Emperor Francis Joseph and a conservative government under Prince Felix Schwarzenberg in charge, the Habsburgs were able to fend off the danger. By 1850, the Habsburg rule had been restored, as was the German Confederation. Francis Joseph’s neo-absolutist regime was based on tradition, repression, economic progress, and prestige. During the Crimean War (1853–56), Austria’s policy offended a Russia Empire that had supported the Habsburgs against the Hungarian insurgency in 1849 yet did not lead to an alliance with France and Great Britain. In 1858, the French Emperor Napoleon III formed an alliance with Piedmont-Sardinia to expel Austria from northern Italy. In response to Sardinian provocations, the Habsburg monarchy went to war. Defeated by the French-Sardinian alliance in the Battles of Magenta and Solferino, Austria was forced to cede Lombardy in 1859. The Habsburg Empire had no choice but to watch helplessly from the sidelines as the Italian kingdoms and principalities were swept aside by a combination of nationalism and Sardinian power politics. The next blow to Habsburg prestige came in the 1860s when Prussia under Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck outmaneuvered Austrian foreign policy in the debate about a reformed German Confederation and the future of the former Danish duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, both occupied by Austrian and Prussian forces after the German-Danish War of 1864. The Prussian secession from the German Confederation led in 1866 to war between Prussia and Austria and most of the other German states. The Battle of Königgrätz ended with a clear Prussian victory and forced Francis Joseph to accept Austria’s exclusion from Germany. Victories over Prussia’s ally Italy in the Battles of Custoza and Lissa were of little political significance and could not prevent the loss of Venetia. The creation of two new nation-states, Germany and Italy, had come at the expense of the Habsburg Empire, which could survive as a Great Power only as long as the opposition within it could be mollified.
   Constitutional Reform
   From 1860 to 1867, constitutional reform therefore ranked high on the political agenda. Neo-absolutist rule gave way to broader political participation, lively public debate, and the protection of individual rights. The most difficult aspect was the position of Hungary within the framework of the empire. The Hungarian opposition under leaders like Ferenc Deák and Count Gyula Andrássy negotiated the Ausgleich , or Compromise, of 1867, which transformed the Habsburg possessions into Austria-Hungary. From 1867 to 1918, the so-called Dual Monarchy symbolized a union of the Kingdom of Hungary and Austria over the other kingdoms and lands of the Habsburgs; both parts shared the person of the monarch, the King of Hungary and Emperor of Austria, and the settlement of succession laid down in the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713–1723 was the constitutional foundation of Austria-Hungary. According to Law XII of 1867, approved by the Hungarian diet, Hungary also accepted a common foreign policy and a common defense. Currency and foreign trade issues were also to be resolved in common. After 1868, a common Austro-Hungarian army and navy formed the Habsburg monarchy’s fighting forces, but there would also be defense forces for Hungary and Austria. The common ministers of foreign affairs, war, and finances and the prime ministers of Austria and Hungary would deliberate on questions of common interest. Delegations from the parliaments in Vienna and Budapest would discuss regularly the common ministers’ policy. The contributions of Hungary and Austria to the budget of the common ministries had to be negotiated every 10 years. Among the common ministers, the minister of foreign affairs stood out as minister of the Imperial and Royal House. He presided over the session of the common ministerial council if the monarch were not present in the council. High politics were traditionally the most prestigious aspect of government policy, and the decision to wage war or to make peace was considered to be the monarch’s prerogative. In the Dual Monarchy, where there was no common prime minister or chancellor, the foreign minister served as the monarch’s most important political advisor.
   In domestic affairs, the emperor and king had to rely on the heads of governments in Vienna and Budapest. The prime ministers of both Austria and Hungary were appointed and dismissed by the monarch, who had to approve any legislation, but the prime ministers nonetheless needed the backing of a parliamentary majority to get their budgets and bills through the legislative assemblies. Emergency legislation offered an opportunity to circumvent unruly parliaments, especially in Austria, but only for brief periods. In Hungary, support for the prime minister in the diet was almost indispensable. The composition of the parliaments in Vienna and Budapest differed significantly. Austria’s ethnic diversity was adequately reflected in parliament, at least by comparison with the ethnically homogenous Hungarian diet. Magyars, the Hungarian-speaking segment of the population, were overrepresented as a consequence of restrictive electoral laws excluding the less affluent and mostly non-Magyar Hungarian citizens. In Austria, the electorate was gradually expanded and universal male suffrage introduced in 1907. The crown supported this democratization in the hope that nationalistic parties with their middle-class supporters would lose clout. The Austrian crown lands had their own parliaments and electoral rules; the administration of the crown lands was headed by a governor, chosen by the emperor and usually drawn from the high nobility. Within the framework of the Kingdom of Hungary, the Kingdom of Croatia-Slavonia enjoyed a high degree of autonomy, whereas the rest of the Hungarian realm had a more centralized structure than Austria.
   On the domestic agenda, dualism and the nationality question stood out. Whether the settlement of 1867 was sufficient to secure Hungarian independence was hotly debated among Hungarian politicians. With the diet in Budapest dominated by the small Hungarian-speaking elite of landowners and bourgeoisie, social or national divisions in the parliament were less significant than the divide between the supporters of the Ausgleich and the followers of almost complete independence. The Liberals under the leadership of Kálmán Tisza accepted the Compromise of 1867 as the legal basis of Hungary’s place in the Habsburg monarchy and controlled Hungarian politics until 1890. Over the following decade, the economic success and growing self-confidence of the Magyar middle class fueled a signifi-cant rise in Magyar nationalism. The Independence Party followed the tradition of the revolutionaries of 1848–1849 and put pressure on the Hungarian government to aim for Hungary’s independence. In 1903, the conflict between Hungary and the crown escalated, when Francis Joseph upheld the status quo of the common army in the face of attempts to establish Hungarian as the language of command. A coalition formed around the Independence Party was forced to give in to Francis Joseph when the king threatened to have a general franchise bill introduced in parliament in 1905. In the last years before World War I, István Tisza, the leader of the Hungarian moderates, managed to rein in the opposition within the diet and became the most influential politician in Austro-Hungarian politics. In the late 1880s, Tisza became the first Hungarian prime minister willing to co-finance a massive military buildup. Stability in Hungary and better cooperation between Vienna and Budapest, however, could be achieved only by accepting Magyar dominance in Hungary and Hungarian assertiveness in Austro-Hungarian negotiations. To Francis Ferdinand, Francis Joseph’s nephew and heir apparent, this was anathema. He believed that Hungary’s strong position within the Dual Monarchy would block any sensible solution to nationality problems and would eventually bring down the Habsburg Empire. Yet he and his supporters tried in vain to roll back the political influence of Hungary’s elite, so when war broke out in 1914, dualism was still one of the decisive features of the Habsburg Empire’s political system.
   The Balkan Tinderbox
   The nationality question was no less persistent than the quarreling about dualism. With 11 officially recognized nationalities, none of them constituting a majority, Austria-Hungary certainly was a multiethnic empire. By 1910, the Austrian population broke down into the following percentages: 35.6 percent Germans, 23 percent Czechs, 17.8 percent Poles, and 12.6 percent Ruthenians (Ukrainians). In the same year, the population of the lands of the Hungarian crown was 48.1 percent Magyar, 9.8 percent German, 9.4 percent Slovak, 14.1 percent Rumanian, 8.8 percent Croatian, and 5.3 percent Serb. On the eve of World War I, the Magyars were almost a majority language group in Hungary yet only one-fifth of the Habsburg Empire’s population. Even the Germans could claim no more than 23.9 percent of Austria-Hungary’s total population. Unlike the Magyars, the Germans watched their share of the population dwindling, albeit rather slowly; the traditional dominance of Germans in most of the crown lands looked threatened by a Slav population, growing stronger in relative terms. In Bohemia, with its Czech majority, German and Czech nationalists were at loggerheads over language policy issues. When the Austrian government under Prime Minister Count Badeni proposed a settlement that strengthened the role of Czech in official use in 1897, Germans in Bohemia and in other parts of Austria protested in the streets, and German politicians obstructed the parliament in Vienna. Badeni’s decrees were revoked and the Bohemian nationality problem was still waiting for a viable solution when Austria-Hungary finally collapsed in 1918.
   Other nationality conflicts, in Moravia and Bukovina for example, could be solved by compromise. In Galicia, the Poles made some concessions to the Ruthenians. In Hungary, the government’s policy of Magyarization worked well in the Hungarian heartland but alienated the Slovak, Rumanian, Croatian, and Serb minorities. The Croats in Croatia-Slavonia were able to defend their cultural autonomy. Among Croatians and Serbs in the lands of the Hungarian crown and in Austria, different strands of nationalism evolved, one of them aiming at the unification of the Habsburg monarchy’s South Slavs. This challenged the structure of the Dual Monarchy and called for the incorporation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
   Bosnia-Herzegovina , part of the Ottoman Empire and home to Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, and South Slav Muslims, was occupied by Austria-Hungary after the Congress of Berlin in 1878. Administered by a special department of the common ministry of finance, Bosnia-Herzegovina belonged to neither Austria nor Hungary. The unilateral annexation of the territory in 1908 at the behest of foreign minister Aloys Lexa von Aehrenthal caused an international crisis but failed to stabilize the internal situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Radical Serb and South Slav nationalistic groups, encouraged and supported by factions of the elite in the kingdom of Serbia, agitated against Habsburg rule. One such organization, the Black Hand, assassinated Francis Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo on July 28, 1914. Austria- Hungary’s political leaders, first and foremost the new foreign minister Count Leopold Berchtold, decided to use the murder of the Habsburg Empire’s heir apparent as an opportunity to wage punitive war on Serbia for its provocations going back several years. Bosnia-Herzegovina was the only example of Austro- Hungarian territorial expansion in the age of imperialism, and the western half of the Balkan Peninsula was considered to be the Habsburg Empire’s “natural” sphere of influence. The Balkan Wars of 1912–1913 made a mockery of this miniature version of imperialism. In addition, Serbia’s policy in the South Slav question was perceived as a deadly threat to Austria-Hungary’s survival as a Great Power. To quell the South Slav opposition within the Habsburg Empire and to defend its Great Power status, Austria-Hungary posted an ultimatum to Serbia that ultimately triggered war against its neighbor in July 1914. The political and military leaders of the Habsburg Empire and Francis Joseph were well aware that an attack on Serbia could lead to Russian military intervention and to a wider Great Power conflict but were not deterred. There was hope that Russia, because of its domestic instability, might not enter the fray, and, in the event of a European war, Austria-Hungary could rely on German assistance. In 1879, the Habsburg monarchy had formed the Dual Alliance with Germany, which was a defensive alliance against Russia and was supplemented in 1881 by the Triple Alliance with Germany and Italy and in 1882 by a secret alliance treaty with Rumania. As a result of the domestic quarreling about dualism, however, the Habsburg monarchy had neglected the buildup of its reserve armed forces since the late 1880s. Austria-Hungary took part in the European armaments race after 1912 but could not make up for decades of a self-imposed blockade. In addition, Germany would have to face the possibility of a two-front-war against Russia and France, which had been united in a military alliance since the 1890s.
   Greatly exaggerated hopes in Italy’s and Rumania’s support or at least neutrality and extreme optimism with regard to the German and Austro-Hungarian offensives at the beginning of the war proved to be illusory. The Austro-Hungarian army under the leadership of Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf suffered defeat in 1914–1915. With German help, Habsburg troops were able to achieve victories against Russia and Serbia in 1915, against Rumania in 1916, and against Italy in 1917, but coalition warfare led to an ever-increasing dependence on Germany and made it more or less impossible to negotiate a separate peace treaty with the Entente powers. After Francis Joseph’s death in November 1916, the new Emperor, Charles I, tried to win more freedom of maneuver, but his policy of secret negotiations with the Entente backfired when the talks were made public by the French in 1918. In the face of growing unrest caused by the hardship of war and calls for independence among the Habsburg Empire’s Slavs, Charles offered a root-and-branch reform of Austria-Hungary’s political structure in October 1918. It was too late. The Austro-Hungarian front in Italy was already collapsing and nationalists seized effective control in many parts of the empire.
   Austria-Hungary broke apart in November 1918, and Charles was helpless to prevent the Habsburg Empire’s dismemberment. He went into exile in Switzerland in March 1919. Two attempts to restore Habsburg rule in Hungary failed in 1921, and Charles was forced to leave Europe for the Portuguese island of Madeira, where he died on April 1, 1922. His empire had given way to several newly created states. From beginning to end, the Habsburg Empire had been a union of territories kept together by the ruling house, the court, the crown’s advisors, and the military and civilian servants of the Habsburg dynasty. Tradition and convenience had provided for widespread loyalty as long as middle class nationalism was confined to interethnic bickering, but in the face of a long and unsuccessful war, “divide and rule” tactics could not save an empire that had endured for centuries.
   See also Appendix Words and Deeds, Doc. 24; Balkan Wars; Black Hand; Congress of Vienna; Eastern Question; Napoleonic Wars.
    Bérenger, Jean. A History of the Habsburg Empire, 1780–1918 . London: Longman, 1997;
    Bridge, Francis R. The Habsburg Monarchy Among the Great Powers, 1815–1918 . New York: St. Martin’s, 1990;
    Cornwall, Mark, ed. The Last Years of Austria-Hungary: A Multi-National Experiment in Early Twentieth Century Europe . Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2002;
    Evans, Richard J. W. The Making of the Habsburg Monarchy 1550–1700: An Interpretation . Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984;
    Ingrao, Charles. The Habsburg Monarchy, 1618–1815 . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994;
    Kann, Robert A. A History of the Habsburg Empire, 1526–1918 . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974;
    Kann, Robert A. The Multinational Empire: Nationalism and National Reform in the Habsburg Monarchy, 1848–1918 . 2 vols. New York: Octagon Books, 1964;
    Macartney, C. A. The Habsburg Empire, 1790–1918 . London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1968;
    Mason, John W. The Dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, 1867–1918 . London and New York: Longman 1985;
    May, Arthur J. The Hapsburg Monarchy, 1867–1914 . Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1951;
    Sked, Alan. The Decline and Fall of the Habsburg Empire, 1815–1918 . London: Longman, 1989;
    Taylor, A.J.P. The Habsburg Monarchy, 1809–1918 . Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

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

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