Wednesday, May 30, 2012

What Is So Special About The Hapsburgs?

The Imperial House of Hapsburg, later the Imperial and Royal House of Hapsburg-Lorraine, occupies a giant place in world history. This is no exaggeration as there have been relatively few regions of the world in which the House of Hapsburg did not play some part in the past. Over the centuries members of this august and noble family have provided Archdukes of Austria, Holy Roman Emperors, Kings of Spain, Kings of Hungary, Kings of Bohemia, Emperors of Austria and even one Emperor of Mexico and one (nominal) King of England. Countries as diverse as Spain, Belgium and Austria reached their “Golden Ages” under Hapsburg rule. The name of the family originates from a castle in what is now Switzerland called Habsburg, which was the center of power for the family until 1276 when Rudolph of Hapsburg became Archduke of Austria, a title his family would hold from that time forward. In 1452 the Hapsburgs finally achieved the highest temporal place in Christendom when Frederick III was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Nicholas V, cementing the leading place the family had played in Germany and northern Italy for some time prior. Hapsburg power and influence expanded rapidly.

Although the ranks of the Hapsburgs included many able soldiers and sailors, most of the expansion of the family was not accomplished by conquest but by matrimonial alliances. This gave rise to the saying that, “Others make war, but thou, O happy Austria, only marry”. It may have been a slight exaggeration but for the most part this was true. Duke Albert V brought Bohemia and Hungary into the Hapsburg fold by marrying Elisabeth of Luxembourg, Emperor Maximilian I gained the Low Countries by marrying Mary of Burgundy and his son, Philip the Fair, married Joanna of Castile which ultimately brought the united Spain into the Hapsburg orbit. This finally united all the Hapsburg domains in the person of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V who was also King Carlos I of Spain. His rule stretched over countries in Eastern Europe, Austria and Germany, northern Italy, the Low Countries, Spain and from Spain across the ocean to the New World. It was this Hapsburg empire about which it was first said that ‘the sun never set’.

It was also under Emperor Charles V that the House of Hapsburg first became the great Catholic champions of Europe. It was he who argued with Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms and fought Protestants in Germany, the French in Italy and the Muslims in the Mediterranean. The Hapsburg lands were divided at his abdication between the Spanish and the Austrian territories and it was his son, King Philip II of Spain, who fought the Protestants in France, expanded Spanish influence from Central America to The Philippines, lifted the siege of Malta, stung the Turks at Lepanto and sent his “Invincible Armada” on its doomed voyage against England. Later, in the other Hapsburg domain, it was the Holy Roman Emperors Ferdinand II and Ferdinand III who tried to stop the spread of Protestantism and return the German states entirely to the Catholic Church in the Thirty Years War. This might have been achieved were it not for the intervention of France which resulted in the war ending in a stalemate. The Hapsburg line died out in Spain but continued in Austria though as the House of Hapsburg-Lorraine when the Empress Maria Theresa married the Duke of Lorraine who became Emperor Francis I. Empress Maria Theresa continued the tradition of the Hapsburgs being a bulwark of Catholicism in Eastern Europe at a time of growing skepticism and secularism.

The Spanish Hapsburgs lost The Netherlands in a long war for independence which was also a front for the ongoing conflict between Catholics and Protestants. However, Belgium remained in Hapsburg hands and under the governorship of Infanta Isabella of Spain and Archduke Albert of Austria reached its “Golden Age” in terms of prosperity, art, religion and learning. However, after this period, Hapsburg influence in Germany, particularly northern Germany, began to decline. Still, the Hapsburg court remained world famous. Under Emperor Joseph II there was a turn toward the principles of the “Enlightenment” as well as patronage for some of the greatest musical geniuses of history, most notably Mozart and Beethoven. His policies made him extremely popular with the common people but often quite unpopular with the aristocracy and the clergy. The French Revolution had a dramatic impact on the House of Hapsburg, as it did most every great house in Europe.

The lovely tragic Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, who lost her life on the Paris guillotine was the sister of Emperor Joseph II (daughter of Empress Maria Theresa). Another sister was Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples who was displaced by the French invasion of Italy. After Napoleon Bonaparte ended the French Revolution and began his wars to dominate Europe, one of his most talented battlefield opponents was the Austrian Archduke Charles. When the Frenchman determined to make himself Emperor this brought about the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire with the Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor Francis II becoming Emperor Francis I of Austria in 1804. In fact, the Holy Roman Empire had long been a mostly nominal entity for some time prior to that. It was always little more than a confederation of minor German monarchies though under certain emperors it became more centralized and more like a formal German nation-state. However, decentralized power was an old tradition for the Hapsburgs. During their rule of Spain, a great deal of localism remained and there was not a great deal of centralization until after the Spanish Hapsburgs died out and were replaced by the French House of Bourbon. In Austria, there had not been much centralization of power under the Hapsburgs until the reign of Emperor Joseph II.

Francis I, ruler of the Austrian Empire, became related to the parvenu Bonaparte clan when Napoleon married his daughter Marie Louise who became Empress of the French and mother to the future “King of Rome” Napoleon II. The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars had also caused a large surge in nationalism and this would have a large impact on the House of Hapsburg which remained the most influential (if not the most powerful) royal family in Germany while also reigning over Czechs, Slovaks, Magyars, Slovenians, Croatians, Italians, Serbs and Romanians among others. In 1815 Emperor Francis I became the first President of the German Confederation, a loose organization of German-speaking states which included mostly lands he did not rule and only those predominately German areas among the lands he did. The German Confederation survived until the reign of Emperor Francis Joseph I, after which it became the German Empire under the leadership of the House of Hohenzollern of the Kingdom of Prussia. The reign of Emperor Francis Joseph I was the twilight of the House of Hapsburg. He came to the throne amidst the tumultuous Revolutions of 1848 which was a near disaster for the Austrian Empire with a rebellion in Hungary being suppressed only with the aid of Russian troops sent by the “Gendarme of Europe” Tsar Nicholas I.

In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, the Austrian statesman Prince Metternich had played a leading role in re-drawing the map of Europe to maintain a balance of powers and uphold legitimate authority. However, as he passed from the scene a series of events worked in concert to upset that balance. Emperor Francis Joseph was a good man and a solid, stable monarch. Nonetheless, he was not immune from making mistakes and at times also faced situations in which he could only choose the lesser of two unfortunate options. Growing unrest in Hungary obliged the Emperor to agree to a dual monarchy in which power was shared between the Germans of Austria and the Magyars of Hungary, hence the Austrian Empire was replaced by the “Dual Empire” of Austria-Hungary in 1867. Politicians cut the military budget, weakening Austria at a time when innovations were changing the nature of war rapidly.

In 1859 Austria allowed herself to be provoked into a war with France which ultimately resulted in the loss of most of the Hapsburg possessions in Italy to the House of Savoy. In 1866 the Hapsburg-led German Confederation opposed the expansion of the Kingdom of Prussia in the north which resulted in a war between Austria and Prussia (and the allies of Prussia including most of the north German states and Italy) which saw Austria pushed out of German politics after which even the Catholic German states of the south moved into the orbit of Prussia. The friendly ties with the massive Russian Empire were ended when Emperor Francis Joseph refused to take sides in the Crimean War (seeing neither side as justified) which caused great offense in Russia in light of the aid they had given the Hapsburgs in maintaining their rule over Hungary. The expansion of Austria-Hungary southward, such as with the annexation of Bosnia, angered the Serbians in particular and soon Austria-Hungary was almost surrounded by powers who viewed her with suspicion if not outright hostility. This, along with the fact that the Austrians were not immune from feelings of nationalism either, meant that Austria-Hungary joined in a firm alliance with the new German Empire that had previously displaced her.

So it was that by the beginning of the XX Century Austria-Hungary was beset by problems. Romania, Serbia and Italy also longed to reclaim historic territories under Hapsburg rule. Russia also wished to block Austrian expansion into the Balkans at the expense of Slavic peoples and the division of power with Hungary caused other minorities within the Hapsburg realm to demand the same for their particular group. Nonetheless, Austria-Hungary was not, as some like to claim, a feeble patchwork doomed to inevitable collapse. In military terms, Austria-Hungary could mobilize three million troops and had some of the finest, most state-of-the-art artillery in the world. The brightest lights in art, architecture, music, medicine and other sciences still called Vienna home and industry was growing, railroads were expanding and the economic situation was strengthening. Between 1870 and 1913 the per capita GNP of Austria-Hungary grew at a higher rate than Great Britain, France of even Germany. Internal problems were a major concern, but there were many ideas for new models being considered and discussed, from changing from “dualism” to “trialism” to creating a federal “United States of Greater Austria”. Had it not been for the disaster that was the First World War the Hapsburg Empire may well have continued on, adapting when necessary, as it had for centuries.

Unfortunately, that was not to be. Despite the last-ditch efforts of the last Emperor Charles I (later beatified as Blessed Charles I by Pope John Paul II) the alliance with Germany proved impossible to withdraw from and while Germany did well Austria-Hungary survived, the final defeat of Germany and the other Central Powers meant the total dissolution of the Hapsburg empire. Austria was reduced to a small, landlocked state, deprived of the ability to unite with Germany, Hungary was drastically reduced in size, Czechoslovakia was created, Yugoslavia was created (eventually) and other bits of territory were parceled out to Poland, Italy, Romania with most going to Serbia to create Yugoslavia. It was a dark time for the House of Hapsburg but, for a time, there was some hope for a restoration. Two attempts were made to restore Charles to the throne of Hungary but these ran afoul of the regent, Admiral Horthy, who would not give up power. The Allies also remained inexplicably hostile to a Hapsburg restoration. The last Emperor died and the family legacy was left to his son Archduke Otto. After the “Fatherland Front” came to power in Austria there was again talk of a restoration of the Hapsburg throne but the Nazis moved in to occupy and later annex Austria to prevent this from happening.

HIRH Archduke Otto von Hapsburg was an inveterate enemy of the Nazi regime and would remain opposed to nationalist movements throughout his life. After seeing so many of the countries that would have been part of his empire fall under communist rule, the Archduke became a leading advocate of European unity and the pan-European movement. A respected scholar and statesman, in a move whose circumstances he later expressed regret over, the Archduke renounced his claim to the Hapsburg throne in order to be involved on the political scene and he had an illustrious career as a member of the European Parliament. Such an effort could hardly have a better champion than a member of the House of Hapsburg since there is scarcely a country in Europe the family was not associated with to some degree at some point in history. Today the cosmopolitan nature of the family continues with different members of the Hapsburg family being socially or politically involved in numerous countries of the former Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. They occupy a unique place in world history and European history in particular. Their impact on the world, over the many centuries they held power, was significant to say the very least.


  1. "Romania, Serbia and Italy also longed to reclaim historic territories under Hapsburg rule." - I'm sorry but this is false. These were our historic territories (at least in the Serbian and Romanian case) and they just wanted these territories for themselves. Transylvania and Southern Hungary were never part of Romania and Serbia.

    "and would remain opposed to nationalist movements throughout his life." - I don't know if you consider Francoist Spain to be a nationalist regime, but Otto II was a huge supporter and admirer of General Franco and his work, he even helped him get Spain into the EU.

    1. The Serbian Empire of the medieval period included some areas of what was Austria-Hungary in 1918. Romania of course did not exist as itself prior to the creation of the Kingdom of Romania but (though I'm sure you know this) their claims were based on the historic Romanian majorities of Wallachia, Moldavia and Transylvania. When it comes to that part of Europe almost every place belonged to almost every sort of people in at least one point in history and that is one reason why after the Hapsburgs were overthrown there has still been trouble keeping the peace. In any event, all I said was that they wished to reclaim historic territories, I did not say they wished to reclaim "their" historic territories. The touchy nature of this issue is, I think, illustrative of the problem central and southern Europe faced at the time.

      I am aware that the Archduke was supportive of Franco (and rightly so) but though Franco was a "Spanish nationalist" he was not an ethnic nationalist and he was very concerned about suppressing those ethnic nationalists who wished to break up Spain. I'm sure the Archduke saw this as not entirely dissimilar from the ethnic groups whose seperatism broke up Austria-Hungary.

    2. Thanks for the answer, this way it's clear.

    3. To recognize that some made claims against Austro-Hungarian territory is not to necessarily say these claims were valid or had merit. My only intention was to convey that the Hapsburg empire was virtually surrounded by powers that 'wanted a piece of them'.

  2. I've seen, sir, the claim the late Archduke regretted the 1961 renunciation from time to time, and I know you wrote that he expressed regret. However, I have seen no citations.

    He told me in 2006 that he had no regrets -- in an interview published in 2007. Of course, he could have expressed regrets previously, and even later decided that he had no regrets. And of course, there is also the possibility that he came to regret it very late in life.

    1. What would you consider a valid citation? The usual quotation given is, "This was such an infamy, I'd rather never have signed it. They demanded that I abstain from politics. I would not have dreamed of complying. Once you have tasted the opium of politics, you never get rid of it." from Uncrowned Emperor by Gordon Brook-Shepherd. But, I never knew there was any doubt about this. Everyone I've ever spoken to about it was of the opinion that he felt coerced into doing so, detested doing it, regretted it and never considered it really binding. That is not to say he would have pursued restoration if he had not renounced the claim but that he viewed it as being forced to go against his family in a way.

    2. I don't doubt that he felt coerced into doing it, sir.

      He said he was unhappy about it, but he also said it was the right thing to do in that situation and hence had no regrets about it.

    3. Unhappy about it but did not regret it? I cannot quite grasp that attitude. Would it be better then to delete the line about regretting the decision and leave it simply that he renounced his claim to the throne?

    4. Asked concretely if he had any regrets the answer was no. However, there was no need to "drag out of him" the follow-up on his not being happy about it.

      To me, it was clear that the situation forced him to do it.

      I think regretting is imprecise, but it is perhaps better than nothing.

      Perhaps I should seek to have this particular segment of the audio recording published.

    5. If there is some wording that would be more precise I would be happy to hear it. Personally, I've never understood (or really believed) anyone who says they have "no regrets". I just have a hard time thinking anyone could actually mean that. Unless you're the Holy Mother of God or something, you're going to make mistakes or just have misfortunes you would prefer to have been avoided. If he was not happy about it (which I would not expect him to be), if he was forced into it, it would seem to be implied that he would have preferred it not happened that way. The way I was taught, "regret" simply means to be sorry (sorrowful) about something. That seemed to me to be the Archduke's feeling on the renunciation. Again, if there is a more precise term to use I would gladly change the line in question.

    6. What about this?:

      in a move whose circumstances he expressed regret over

      Of course, this is simply my suggestion. You're the boss at this weblog. :-)

  3. This is a nice article on the uncrowned Emperor. Otto von Habsburg was the legitimate heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. And curiously Otto von Wittelsbach of the royal line of Bavaria, is heir to the Stuart claim to the throne of England, and thusly, Scotland and Wales. However Otto von Habsburg was a tireless worker in politics for the benefit of humanity. An example of how to live one's life no matter what our circunstances.


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