The Hapsburgs: Historical Background

Figure 1.--

The history of the Austrian Empire and subsequently the Austro-Hungarian Empire is difficult to write. This is because modern historians and readers are used to history through an often highly colored national lens. The Austrian/Austro-Hungarian Empire in contrast was a polygot construction of peoples with different cultureas, religion, ethnicity, and historical experiences. These people had national experiences before they were absorbed by Hapsburg Austria and then after World War I once sparated from the Hapsburgs. The Hapsburgs were able to acquire the title of emperor through their preminent position within the Holy Roman Empire. Only with Maria Theresa, who could not be the Holy Roman Emperor because of her gender, did the Austria Empire come into existence. And then with Austra's defeat in the Austro-Prussian War, constitutional changes forged the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The rising nationlist tensions within the Empire led to World War I and the destruction of the Empire. This left the relatively small German portion of the Empire to declare the Austrian Republic.

Early Medieval Era

The Habsburg dynasty is so old that its origins are not fully established. The family is belireved to have been The actual origin of the family is obscure, but Guntram the Rich (??-950) appears to have founded the dynasty. He was a Carolingian noble. Castles in Europe during the Mideval era were of great importance, especially before the appearance of gunpowder and cannons. A strong castle could mean survival even when faced by a feuding neigbor or invader with superior forces. The family name thus derived from the castle of Habsburg, or Habichtsburg ("Hawk's Castle"). Not suprisingly, this is the same origin of the Hohenzollern family name. Bishop Werner of Strasbourg, a descendent of Guntram, built the castle in 1020 on the Aare River in what is the present Swiss canton of Aargau. The prominance of a bishop in Hapsburg history is in part the result of the significant political role of the Church in Medieval Europe.

Holy Roman Empire (1276-1740)

With Rudolf's acquisition of Austria, the Duchy's history became associated with the Habsburg dynasty and the Holy Roman Empire. With few exceptions, the Imperial Diet elected a Habsburg emperor. Austria was raised to an arch duchy (1453). The Empire under the Hapsburgs became a bulwark against Ottomon expansion into Western Europe. The final threat was the seige of Vienna (1683). The Habsburgs led the Counter Reformation which attempted to destroy Protestantism. The Hansburgs and Austria lost its primacy within the Empire as a result of the Thirty Years War and the wars of the 18th century. Increasingly Austria looked eastward and southward to expand in non-Germanic areas outside the Holy Roman Empire. The defining moment here was the reign of Maria Thresa although the Holy Roman Empire itself cobntinued until abolished by Napoleon (1806).

Austria Empire (1749-1867)

Maria Theresa in 1740 ascended the throne and ruled for 40 years. This period is generally acknowledged as the era in which Austria developed as a modern state. During her reign, control was centralised, a civil service was established, the army and economy were reformed and a public education system was introduced. However, progress was halted when Napoleon defeated Austria at Austerlitz in 1805. European conflict dragged on until the settlement at the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15. Austria was left with control of the German Confederation but suffered upheaval during the 1848 revolutions and eventual defeat in the 1866 Austro-Prussian War.

Ausrto-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918)

Prussia's defeat of Austria led to the formation of the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary in 1867 under Emperor Franz Josef and exclusion from the new German Empire unified by Bismarck. A period of prosperity followed. The Austro-Hungarian Empire in contrast was a polygot construction of peoples with different cultureas, religion, ethnicity, and historical experiences. These people had national experiences before they were absorbed by Hapsburg Austria. For much of European history, nationalism was not a major factor. Many people were ruled by foreign dynasties. The French Revolution fundamentally changed attitudes toward foreign rules. The same force that led to German unification under Prussia led to othee peoples demanding theie own nation states or at least autonomy within national structures. This is whzt led to Hungary becoming one of the two constituent parts of he Empire. Other ethnic groups within the Empire also wanted greater political ruights. Austria's expansionist tendencies in the Balkans and its annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 led to the assassination of the Emperor's nephew in Sarajevo in June 1914 by serbian separatists. A month later, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, the Russians came to the Serbians aid and the slaughter of World War I began in earnest.

World War I (1914-18)

Austria had for centuries been a major European power, dominating the Holy Roman Empire. Prussia in the Austro-Prussian War (1866) essentially ejected Austria from Germany. The Hapsburgs then recreated Austrial as the Dual Monarchy--the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Austria-Hungary became a large multi-ethnic empire dominated by a Grman and Hungarian rukling class. The Empire dominated much of central Europe. Ousted from Germany, it expelled into the Balkans where it came into conflict with Russia which had ethnic ties and expansionary goals. These conflicts escalated as Ottoman power wained. Its dealings with the various nationalities were a major political problem. The Hungarians were give dual royal status with Austria. Other nationalities felt oppressed, none more than the Slavs. Serbia secretly supported terrorist forces in Bosnia withits substantial Slavic population. This led to the assasination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand and Austria's decession to punish Serbia. The Austrians had no desire to launch a world war which was reflected in their war planning. There were two Austrian war plans, Plans B and R. The difference in the two plans reflected the unknown of the Russian reaction. Plan B provided only for hostilities in the Balkans against Serbia. Three Austro-Hungarian armies would invade Serbia. Three other armies would be heldin reserve along the Russan border. Plan R was a more expansive plan, a modification of Plan B in case the Russians invaded. In this case only two armies would invade Serbia and four armies would defend against the Rusians. It assumed that the Germans would enter the War if the Russians declared war. Ecalating nationalist tensions came to a head when Serbian nationalists assasinated Archduke Ranz Derdinand, heir to Emperor Franz Josef. Germany's decession to support Austria's desire to punish Serbia turned a Balkans crisis into a major European war. It was the Russians that cracked first, but only because the Germans bolstered the Austrins. The enormous losses from the War, however, fundamentally destabilized the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Empire desintegrated in the closing months of World War I (1918).

Republic of Austria (1918-38)

At the conclusion of the World War I the Hapsburghs abdicatd. The resulting shrunken Republic of Austria was created and was forced to recognise the independent states of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and Yugoslavia which, along with Romania and Bulgaria, had previously been under control of the Habsburgs. The new republic suffered economic strife which led to an upsurge in Nazi-style politics. Austria's embrace of fascism meant that German troops met little opposition to the Anchluss in 1938 and incorporated Austria into the Third Reich. A national referendum in Austria that year supported the annexation. For its troubles, Austria was bombed heavily in World War II and by 1945 it had been restored to its 1937 frontiers by the victorious Allies. It was divided into four zones by occupying American, British, French and Russian troops who remained entrenched for a decade before withdrawing and allowing Austria to proclaim its neutrality.


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Created: 12:30 AM 9/24/2008
Last updated: 12:30 AM 9/24/2008