The Habsburg lands




Central Europe


 Austria  Croatia  Romania  Switzerland
 Bohemia  Hungary  Slovakia  Voivodina
 Bosnia  Poland  Slovenia  Yugoslavia

  After the death in 814 of Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor, his empire was split by his son Louis the Pious into three parts. The treaty of Verdun in 843 gave the western part to Charles the Bald - it grew into the kingdom of France; the middle part to Lothar - it became the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland and Italy and the disputable borders between France and Germany (the name of Lotharingia lives on in the province of Lorraine). The eastern part went to Louis the German who retained the title of Holy Roman Emperor. This part covered the area of modern Germany, Austria, Hungary (not yet occupied by Magyars), Czechoslovakia (Bohemia) and Switzerland. The emperor was elected by the great men of this area, including the Bishops of great dioceses and the rulers of subsidiary states. These became known as the Electors. The Emperors never succeeded in making the Eastern Realm - Österreich or Austria - into a kingdom like France with a central government. Their real power was confined to their personal lands in Bavaria.

The empire maintained a struggle with the Papacy. The Pope and the Emperor disputed which was the supreme power. This was symbolised by the Pope crowning the emperor.

The Habsburg family emerged from a castle in Switzerland - the first land that was to reject their power. They began like any other robber baron of the feudal age, but had the culture of acquiring new lands every generation mainly by marrying well. Thus their personal lands increased, especially into what is now Austria.

The office of Holy Roman emperor was first held by a Habsburg (Rudolf) in 1273. The emperors' power over most of the land weakened and devolved to the local princes whose sometimes very small states became effectively independent of the emperor. The western part eventually became modern Germany (and Switzerland, which broke away in 1394). At the same time through marriage and conquest the Habsburgs became personal rulers of many of these states. The most important of these titles was King of Bohemia, based in Praha (Prague) and King of Hungary, based in Budapest (after Hungary was reconquered from the Ottomans).

Charles the fifth born in Gent (now Belgium) inherited the throne of Spain in 1519 and ruled Spain and its empire until 1556. Fortunately for the rest of Europe he was not able to make these two realms into a powerful state and they remained a collection of feudal states. On his abdication Spain was separated again.

The Holy Roman Empire ceased to exist as a Power after the Thirty Years War. The Treaty of Westfalia (1648) was the real foundation of the Habsburg empire. The emperors had lost control of the German states they did not own personally. Most of what is now Germany dissolved into hundreds of tiny states, dominated by France.

The Empire expanded through conquest of the western parts of the Ottoman Empire and acquired by this means Hungary and the Slav lands (now Slovenia and Croatia). As Poland was dismantled, the Habsburgs got a share (Galicia).

When Napoleon Bonaparte abolished the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 (he said it was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire, and he himself wanted to be the only Emperor) the personal domains of the Habsburgs became the Austrian Empire (Oesterreich). When the Hungarians asserted their nationalism in 1867 the empire was divided into two administrations and was known as Austria-Hungary, the Dual Monarchy or the Habsburg Empire. The empire continued to expand during the 19th century, annexing part of Poland (Galicia) when it was divided with Germany and Russia. Bosnia and Herzegovina were two Slav provinces of the Ottoman Empire which were occupied in 1878 and annexed in 1908, but were ruled by the Hungarian government.

During the 19th century nationalism grew in the non-German lands. The grip of the central government, controlled by the aging Emperor Franz Josef, grew weaker, especially in the southern Slav areas, Galicia in Poland and Hungary.

There was a Parliament (Diet) for the whole empire, but its influence over the government was weak. Outsiders tended to regard the empire as a "ramshackle" political entity.

Perhaps its greatest importance was its culture: Literature, Music and other arts flourished in Vienna. A recognisable style of architecture can be found in all the cities once ruled by the Habsburgs.

That culture tended to be spread via the German speaking peoples, and the Jews. The aristocracy that formed the ruling group throughout the empire had a common culture. Those were ruined by the aftermath of the first and second world wars.

It may be considered that that common culture finally died after Hitler ordered the killing of most of the Jews. But before that many of them emigrated to other countries, such as the United States, where they were influential in such fields as Hollywood, Psychoanalysis, Music and Science.

First world war
Austria-Hungary was an ally of Germany in the first world war and shared its defeat. The first world war started with the dispute between Serbia and the Habsburg occupied lands of Bosnia and Croatia.

The Archduke Ferdinand was the heir to the aging emperor Franz-Josef. He and his wife were assassinated by Serb nationalists while on a visit to Sarajevo in Bosnia. The result of this was a chain of events that led to Austria's attack on Serbia, Russia's attack on Austrian and German land in the east and the involvement of the western powers: Britain and France. The end of this process was the break up of the Empire.

The Austrian Army was much weaker than its German ally's. It was defeated in the fronts where it faced the western Allies and Russia: Italy, Poland and the Slav provinces.

The nationalists among the non-German peoples regarded it as a "prison of nations" and used the defeat, encouraged by President Wilson of the United States, to set up their own states.

The modern states: Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, parts of Poland, parts of Yugoslavia (Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia) and part of Romania (Transylvania) and part of Italy (south Tirol) came out of the Austro-Hungarian Empire on its break up in 1918.

  • Galicia went to Poland
  • Transylvania to Romania
  • Ruthenia to Ukraine
  • South Tirol to Italy
  • Bohemia and Moravia were added to Hungarian-ruled Slovakia to become Czechoslovakia
  • Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia became parts of Yugoslavia
  • Voivodina to Yugoslavia

Between the wars (1919 -1939) the new states were mostly rather unsuccessful, except for Czechoslovakia which already possessed much of the old empire's industry and Middle Class. As separate small states they played the role of buffers between Germany and the Soviet Union but had little independent action. In 1938 Czechoslovaks hoped for the influence of France and Britain to protect them from German threats. The British Prime Minister let them down by making an agreement at Munich to transfer the German speaking districts (Sudetenland) to Germany leaving the Czechs defenceless, soon to be invaded by Hitler. When the war started all the small states were occupied by Germany. There were informal proposals before 1945 to create a Danube Confederation which would have reconstituted the geography of the former Empire. However, following the war, in 1945, Stalin occupied them all in turn (except Austria) to prevent further western attacks on the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union retained them as a forward defense area until the events of 1989-90.

By 1992 the Russian forces had left the whole area. Fifteen years later it is becoming clearer what has happened. All have joined the European Union and have joined NATO. Would the successor states come under German influence again? Briefly there was a question of whether the Danube Association of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Italy, Yugoslavia, and Romania would grow into a substitute for the former Empire. It didn't happen. But its ghost haunts Central Europe whose culture still reflects the time of the Habsburgs. (But some say that culture was mostly Jewish and was lost in the ovens of Auschwitz, or migrated to California.)

The Habsburg Family
The heir of the Habsburgs, Dr. Otto Von Habsburg (1912-2011), son of the last emperor (Karl 1916-18) was a member of the European Parliament from Bavaria and was believed to be active in many conservative networks (including the Paneuropa movement founded by Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi) to promote a mainly Catholic European Union. At the time of the end of Communism people wondered whether he would claim the throne of Hungary or Austria if people desired a king again. (So far they haven't.) One son is a European MP, for Hungary; another represents Austria. Otto von Habsburg died 4 July 2011, aged 98.

Slovenia and Croatia represent the Habsburg inheritance in Yugoslavia, still with some of their Central European culture. The war in Yugoslavia has resulted in a division of the country roughly along the frontiers of 1914. Slovenia has joined the EU and adopted the euro and Croatia is due to join in 2012.

The ethnic conflicts which arose again in the post Cold War period were in the past held in check first by the Habsburg state and later by the Communists; perhaps only some organization over the successor states can be expected to keep them peaceful. Some observers hoped the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe would perform this function, if combined with a European Economic Space (free trade area). So far this hope looks unjustified. Instead NATO stepped in to separate the Serbs from their neighbors. NATO peacekeeping forces are present in Bosnia and Kosova, which are both currently (2006) Protectorates of the UN and EU.

Germany is the only likely source of capital to rebuild the ruined economies of the former communist states. But German capital is not inexhaustible and is being used first in the former east Germany. By early 1994 it was clear that Germany itself was suffering serious economic recession, which has continued in the following decade. Most of the former Habsburg states are benefitting from their low wage status and attracting manufacturing industry from the older EU states.

All of the former Habsburg lands except Bosnia, Croatia and parts of Ukraine are now (2007) members of the EU and are receiving funds for rebuilding their infrastructures. As low wage economies they are attracting jobs out of the western European states. Thus many of them are growing quite fast.

Romania joined in 2007, bringing with it Transylvania, inhabited mainly by Magyars.

Interesting Reading

Patrick Leigh Fermor - Between the Woods and the Water
a walking tour of central Europe shortly before the second world war, a classic.

Count Heinrich Coudenhove-Kalergi - Antisemitism throughout the ages (1901)
An Austrian aristocrat, related to the Greek, Russian, Dutch, British and Japanese aristocracy, argues against the prevailing antisemitism of his class, reprinted in 1935 as an answer to Hitler.
Count Heinrich Coudenhove-Kalergi

Anti-Semitism Throughout the Ages

Antisemitismus. Von den Zeiten der Bibel bis Ende des 19. Jahrhunderts

See this reference, and also google.

No longer in print in English but worth finding in a library. German version still in print - click "Deutsch"

His son, Count Richard, was an advocate in the 1930s of European Union.

Norman Davies - Vanished Kingdoms

Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe

Vanished Kingdoms
  • Aragon, and its Mediterranean empire
  • the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (and Poland)
  • Bourgogne (Burgundy)
  • Strathclyde
  • Bayern (Bavaria)
  • the Papal States
  • the Swedish empire
  • and others

Last revised 26/10/11


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