Thursday, February 7, 2013

Story of Monarchy: Austria-Hungary Part I

The story of the monarchy lastly known as Austria-Hungary, previously known as the Austrian Empire, has its roots in that entity known as the Holy Roman Empire or the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. The Austrian Empire was the primary successor state of what had long been the Holy Roman Empire, that entity perhaps best remembered today from that line by the perpetually smug and smirking “Enlightenment” writer Voltaire who said, “This agglomeration which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire”. The intention of Voltaire (with whom The Mad Monarchist is certainly not in sympathy) was, of course, to simply pour scorn on a traditional European institution as pouring scorn was the one thing he did best, however, he was, in a sense, correct. Partly because of people like himself. The “Holy” aspect had fallen considerably after the advent of religious divisions within the empire and the so-called “Enlightenment” later, of which Voltaire was a part. The “Roman” aspect had almost always been an empty title, the Empire was German and not Roman or Italian. It was the Popes who actually ruled in Rome and who could be counted on to fiercely resist efforts by the Emperor to control that city. As for being an “Empire” it was more often than not hardly how people today would define one. At times strong monarchs would arise and dominate and centralize things but, for the most part, it was more a confederation of minor states than a united empire.

Truth be told, for quite some time before the Holy Roman Empire was formally abolished, certainly by the time that Prussia claimed royal status and began to rise as a power, what most people meant when they spoke of the Holy Roman Empire (or simply “The Empire”) was actually what would become the Austrian Empire. It was that considerable territory ruled by the House of Hapsburg, later the House of Hapsburg-Lorraine, which had long held the first place in the Holy Roman Empire and which would continue to reign over the Austrian Empire and the subsequent “Dual Monarchy” of Austria-Hungary. The Austrian Empire came into being as a result of the victory of Napoleon of France over the Holy Roman Emperor Francis II, resulting in the Treaty of Pressburg in 1805. Most of the German-speaking world then fell under the control or influence of Napoleonic France with the creation of the Confederation of the Rhine. In 1804 Napoleon had already crowned himself Emperor of the French and Francis II suspected that, as there had traditionally been only one emperor in the west and one in the east, that Napoleon was planning on becoming the next Holy Roman Emperor whether in fact or in name. To avoid such an occurrence, in 1806 Francis II abdicated his position (officially that of Emperor-Elect) and dissolved the Holy Roman Empire to become instead Emperor Francis I of Austria.

This did not end Austrian involvement with the rest of the German states, as some might have expected before the downfall of Napoleon, but it did move Austria in that direction. Previous Holy Roman Emperors had tried to solidify Austrian leadership in the German-speaking world; most recently with Emperor Joseph II (who Francis I greatly admired) but he was blocked by the Prussian King Frederick the Great. With the creation of the new Austrian Empire, while Austria joined in subsequent loose unions of the German states, most of the Hapsburg territories (of which Hungary was the largest part) remained on the outside. It was also during this period that the Hapsburg realm became even more diverse which inevitably weakened the position of the German-speaking Austrians. When making peace with Napoleon, Austria lost a sizeable amount of territory (such as Belgium) but was also ceded territory in Italy such as about half of all that remained of the old Republic of Venice. By the time it was all over, much of northern Italy fell under Austrian control as the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia, ironically thanks to the success of Napoleon and revolutionary France (the First Republic).

In the end, the Austrian Empire emerged from the Napoleonic Wars in what seemed to be a very strong position. Distant territories that were very hard to defend were renounced but new territory was gained so that the Empire of Austria was easily one of the major European powers. Austria was blessed with a monarch like Emperor Francis I who was strong, practical and a man capable of making tough decisions as well as an “elder statesman” in the person of Prince Metternich who helped re-draw the map of Europe to maintain a balance of powers and to encourage a traditional monarchial bloc to guard against revolutionary republicanism that, aside from being an inherently bad idea, would disrupt the balance and could plunge the continent into war again. Austria also maintained a leadership position in the new German Confederation with the Austrian Emperor holding the position of President of the Confederation. Initially, with strong leadership in Vienna, allies abroad and a little simple luck, the Austrian Empire had relatively smooth sailing. However, although critics like to pretend Austria was a totally absolute monarchy, the Austrian Empire was a constitutional monarchy and government control of the budget proved to be a dangerous problem. This was primarily felt in terms of the military. With so many ethnic minorities all wanting more political power, a strong imperial army was essential but, all too often, the military was neglected when it came to funding.

These ethnic tensions combined with militant liberalism to boil over in 1848 when revolutions broke out all over Europe. Emperor Francis I was gone and Emperor Ferdinand I, though a perfectly wonderful man, was simply not up to the challenge. It was a moment of terrible crisis with riots in Vienna, rebellions in Italy and in Hungary. This could have very easily been the end of the Austrian Empire with northern Italy and Hungary engulfed in rebellion there was really only enough military strength to suppress one or the other but not both. There were also other uprisings in almost every minority group such as the Slovaks, the Serbs, the Poles and the Czechs. In the end, a new monarch came to the throne, Emperor Francis Joseph I, and the rebellions in Austrian territory were suppressed. In Hungary, the new Emperor asked Tsar Nicholas I of Russia for help and in a show of monarchial solidarity he sent a Russian army into Hungary to aid the Austrians in putting down the rebellion. Even then, the Hungarian rebels might have done better had it not been for the rebellion of minority ethnic groups in their own territory. This caused some to draw back and renew their support for the Hapsburgs, reasoning that they were stronger together than they would be apart and that an independent Hungary might lose considerable territories to ethnic rebellions of their own.

Between the Austrians, Russians and others the rebellion in Hungary was finally crushed. The situation was restored to the way things had been before 1848 but the House of Hapsburg would never be able to sleep quite so peacefully again. They had come dangerously close to the brink and had only narrowly avoided disaster. Dealing with the competing demands of the numerous ethnic groups of the empire would come to dominate almost every national discussion. The situation became even more acute following the Crimean War which resulted in Austria being further isolated on the European stage. After the help Tsar Nicholas I had given Francis Joseph I in Hungary, he expected the Austrians to come to his aid in that conflict and when he did not it helped ensure a lasting enmity between Austria and Russia. The Austrian Empire was thus almost surrounded by hostile or at least unfriendly powers on almost every side save their border with the German states and even there a rivalry was already growing between the Austrians and the most powerful of the German states, the Kingdom of Prussia. While minority groups remained problematic and Hungarian loyalty (because of how close to success the rebellion there had been) became more and more a matter of negotiation, Imperial Austria was also threatened by an alliance between the Second French Empire and the emerging Kingdom of Italy.

In 1859 an ill-advised ultimatum to Piedmont-Sardinia sparked the Second Italian War for Independence between Austria on one side and France and Piedmont-Sardinia on the other. Emperor Francis Joseph I took the field himself and met Emperor Napoleon III in battle but it was a bloody disaster, fairly ruinous for both sides but resulting in Austria losing Lombardy. Frustrated in the south, the Austrian Empire looked north and fought in the coalition against Denmark with Prussia and the rest of the German Confederation but Prussia was soon determined to supplant Austria as the preeminent German-speaking power. In 1866 Prussia (and Italy) went to war against Austria which was totally isolated. Again, due to penny-pinching with the military, Austria was swiftly and decisively defeated, losing her place in the community of German states to Prussia and losing Venice to Italy. However, as long as actual German unification did not take place, there was still hope that Austria might regain her place and it was toward that end that Emperor Francis Joseph finally gave in to the demands for Hungarian autonomy as to be able to focus on the Prussian rival without worrying about another rebellion in Hungary. So it was that the Compromise of 1867 came about, creating the “Dual Monarchy” of Austria-Hungary which saw separate but equal parliaments and prime ministers for both halves of the Hapsburg realm; one in Vienna for the Empire of Austria and one in Budapest for the Kingdom of Hungary.

This put an end, at least for the moment, to Hungarian demands for separation that had arisen during the crisis with Prussia but in later years it had the detrimental side-effect of encouraging other ethnicities (in both Austria and Hungary) to demand the same concessions. However, if the goal was to stop the Prussian ascendancy, it would prove a futile gesture, though not because of any action on the part of Austria-Hungary. An alliance against Prussia was proposed between French Emperor Napoleon III, King Victor Emmanuel II of Italy and Emperor Francis Joseph I of Austria-Hungary. Had this come about, European history might have unfolded quite differently. However, the proposed alliance fell apart over the presence of French troops in Rome which Bonaparte refused to withdraw for fear of losing Catholic support at home. The Italians would not agree to any alliance with France while French troops remained on the Italian peninsula and Austria-Hungary would not agree to an alliance that did not include Italy (for fear that in any conflict, Italy would come in on the other side against them). In the end, nothing was done, France remained alone, just as Austria had been and in 1870 was defeated by Prussia and her allies which resulted in the creation of the German Empire under Prussian leadership. In the aftermath, with the united Germany an established fact, Austria-Hungary could only look to the east and south for her future and would need allies against Russia which she was sure to collide with in such a move.

To be concluded in Part II...


  1. A Truly Excellent summary of one of my absolutely Favorite Monarchies.

    If I am not Mistaken though, Wasn't The Virgin Mary still considered the Rightful Queen of Hungary?

  2. She still is, we call her Magna Mater Hungarorum or Magyarok Nagyasszonya, meaning the Great Lady of Hungarians. Also, the country has been known since King Saint Stephan as Regnum Marianum, the Kingdom/Country of Mary.


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