After centuries as one of the most powerful nations of Europe, proud Austria was forced to divide its empire with Hungary in 1867. The two nations formed a dual monarchy–Austria-Hungary.

In Europe, only Russia surpassed Austria-Hungary in size, population, and variety of nationalities. The empire lay in the Danube Basin, inhabited by German-speaking Austrians in the west and by Magyars in the broad Hungarian plain to the east. Slavs lived on the fringes of the empire, and Italians on the Adriatic coast. Language divided these groups; however, the Danube and the roads and railways radiating from Vienna held them together as an economic unit.

Austria began as a frontier land of Charlemagne’s empire and rose to be the chief German state, ruling many neighboring peoples. Austria-Hungary ceased to exist when the empire split apart at the end of World War I. (Austria; Bosnia and Herzegovina; Croatia; Czechoslovakia; Czech Republic; Hungary; Poland; Romania; Serbia; Slovakia; Slovenia; Ukraine; Yugoslavia.)

The Eastern Outpost of Europe

In the 1st century AD the Romans conquered the Celts south of the Danube and set up a frontier colony. As Rome’s power declined, Germanic tribes from the north overcame the Celts. Christianity took hold in the area in the 7th century, and Salzburg began its rise as a great ecclesiastical center. In the 9th century Charlemagne added the region to his empire as the Ostmark (East March), hoping to stem the invasions from the east. In the next century, however, Magyar invaders ravaged the land. Otto the Great crushed them in the battle of Lechfeld (955) and pushed them back into Hungary.

Austria’s rise to power began with the Babenberg dynasty, which began when Leopold I became Margrave of Austria in 976. Elevated to a duchy, the Ostmark became the Osterreich (Eastern Realm). Its fortunes improved when Leopold V joined the Third Crusade. Leopold quarreled with Richard I (the Lion-Hearted) of England and imprisoned him as he tried to slip through Austria on his way home. With the ransom money England was forced to pay for Richard, Leopold improved the roads and towns of the realm. The Babenberg dynasty came to an end in 1246 when Frederick II, the last of the line, was killed in battle against the Magyars.

After Frederick’s death his lands were divided; they eventually came under the control of the Hapsburg king of Germany, Rudolph I. The Hapsburgs’ power mounted when Albert V was crowned Holy Roman emperor as Albert II in 1438. The title then became virtually hereditary.

“Thou, Happy Austria, Marry!”

“Let others make wars,” so the saying went, “thou, happy Austria, marry!” Albert II married the daughter of the king of Hungary and Bohemia. His successor, Frederick III, came into possession of both these crowns. Frederick’s son Maximilian I, crowned emperor in 1493, married Mary, daughter of Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy and ruler of the Netherlands. Maximilian’s son Philip married Joan, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. Charles V, Maximilian’s grandson, thus inherited Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Naples and Sicily, Spain, and the Spanish New World domain.

Austria, however, did fight as well as marry. For centuries it struggled with France; and with the help of the Magyars, it fought against the Turks, who besieged Vienna itself. Charles V tried to crush the Protestant revolt in Germany. He was made to sign the Peace of Augsburg (1555), however, which allowed each prince to determine whether his people should be Roman Catholic or Lutheran.

Before his death Charles divided his empire, creating two branches of the Hapsburg line. He transferred his German possessions to his brother, Ferdinand I. To his son, Philip II, he gave Milan, Sicily, the Netherlands, and Spain with its American colonies.

Encouraged by the Peace of Augsburg, Protestantism spread. In 1608 Protestant rulers banded together into the Protestant Union. The Roman Catholics countered with the Catholic League. In 1619 the Hapsburg emperor Ferdinand II appealed to the League for help in putting down a Protestant uprising in Bohemia. Soon Austria was involved with all of Europe in a religious conflict (see Thirty Years’ War).

Effects of the Peace of Augsburg

The Peace of Augsburg had weakened the authority of the Holy Roman emperors. At the end of the Thirty Years’ War the empire received its final blow from the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), which further strengthened the local princes by allowing them to make treaties with foreign powers. The way was thus opened for the rise of Prussia, which was eventually to humble the Hapsburgs and assume the leadership in a new German empire (see Prussia).

The Hapsburgs’ influence in European affairs diminished. The remains of their power lay in their rule over those territories from which the empire of Austria-Hungary was beginning to evolve. Successful at last in their long struggle with the Turks, the Hapsburgs forced them out of Hungary by the end of the 17th century.

The War of the Spanish Succession

The Spanish line of the Hapsburgs ended in 1700 when Charles II of Spain died childless and brotherless. One of his sisters had married Louis XIV of France; another married Emperor Leopold I. These rulers had each planned how the rich Spanish possessions should be divided. Charles left a will, however, that made Louis’s younger grandson, Philip, heir to all his possessions.

England became alarmed at this growth in French power and joined with France’s enemies, Austria and Holland, in a Grand Alliance (1701). This led to the War of the Spanish Succession, which spread through Europe and even to America, where it was called Queen Anne’s War (see Queen Anne’s War).

In Europe the Austrian commander, Prince Eugene of Savoy, and the English general, the duke of Marlborough, won the major battles against France but won no decisive victory over the country. Finally Louis XIV agreed to a compromise.

The Treaty of Utrecht (1713) gave each of the foes a share in the Spanish booty. Philip V retained Spain. Some of the colonies went to England, along with Gibraltar. The Spanish Netherlands became the Austrian Netherlands, and Austria also received Naples and Milan, obtaining a hold on Italy that it would greatly enlarge later.

The War of the Austrian Succession

With the death of Charles VI in 1740, the male line of the Austrian Hapsburgs ended. In order to secure all the Austrian possessions to his daughter Maria Theresa, Charles had drawn up a code of succession (the Pragmatic Sanction) and worked tirelessly to have it accepted by the European powers. It seemed at first that they would. However, a new enemy arose to confront Austria. In the same year that Maria Theresa received her inheritance, the ambitious Frederick came to the throne of Prussia. (See also Maria Theresa; Frederick the Great.)

Without bothering to declare war, Frederick marched his armies into Austrian Silesia less than two months after the death of Charles VI. France came to his aid. England and Spain were already at war–the War of Jenkins’ Ear. The two wars merged, with Britain as Austria’s ally. Frederick the Great, having secured Silesia, sat back and quoted, “Happy are they who, having secured their own advantage, can look tranquilly upon the embarrassment of others.”

The peace treaties restored the position of the Austrian crown to what it had been before the war. As far as Austria was concerned, the powers accepted the Pragmatic Sanction; and Frederick the Great ratified the election of Maria Theresa’s consort, Francis I of Lorraine, as Holy Roman emperor. Thus the empire was returned to the new ruling house of Austria–the house of Hapsburg-Lorraine.


Submit your review

Create your own review

Average rating:  
 0 reviews