History of Austria


The Founding of the Dual Monarchy

Defeat in the Seven Weeks' War demonstrated that Austria was no longer a great power. Looking to the future, Franz Joseph set three foreign policy objectives designed to restore Austrian leadership in Germany: regain great-power status; counter Prussian moves in southern Germany; and avoid going to war for the foreseeable future. Because reconciliation with Hungary was a precondition for regaining great-power status, the new foreign minister, Friedrich Ferdinand von Beust, became a strong advocate of bringing the stalemated negotiations with the Hungarians to a successful conclusion. By the spring of 1867, a compromise had been reached and was enacted into law by the Hungarian Diet.

The Compromise Ausgleich of 1867 divided the Habsburg Empire into two separate states with equal rights under a common ruler, hence the term "Dual Monarchy." Officially, these states were Hungary and the "Kingdoms and Lands represented in the Parliament," the latter being an awkward designation necessitated by the lack of a historical name encompassing all non-Hungarian lands. Unofficially, the western half was called either Austria or Cis-Leithania, after the Leitha River, which separated the two states. The officially accepted name of the Dual Monarchy was Austria-Hungary, also seen as the AustroHungarian Empire.

The two national governments and their legislatures in Vienna and Budapest shared a common government consisting of a monarch with almost unlimited powers in the conduct of foreign and military affairs, a ministry of foreign affairs, a ministry of defense, and a finance ministry for diplomatic and military establishments. In the absence of a shared parliament, discussion of the empire's common affairs was conducted by parallel meetings of delegates from the two national legislatures communicating with each other through written notes. A key topic of these meetings was the common commercial policy and customs union that had to be renegotiated every ten years.

The Austrian parliament passed legislation implementing the Ausgleich in late 1867. This "December Constitution" was the product of German-speaking Liberals, who were able to dominate parliament because of a boycott by Czech delegates. The December Constitution closely followed the constitution of 1849 and placed no significant restrictions on the emperor with regard to foreign and military affairs but did add a list of fundamental rights enjoyed by Austrians. The lower house of the Austrian parliament was elected through a highly restricted franchise (about 6 percent of the male population). Seats were apportioned both by province and by curiae, that is, four socioeconomic groups representing the great landowners, towns, chambers of commerce, and peasant communities.

By building on the two dominant nationalities in the empire, German and Hungarian, dualism enabled Austria-Hungary to achieve relative financial and political stability. It did not, however, provide a framework for other nationalities, in particular the Slavs, to achieve equivalent political stature. Indeed, the Hungarian state used its power to preclude such an outcome. Hungary interpreted provisions in the Ausgleich as requiring Austria to retain its basic constitutional structure as a unitary state, so that any federalist accommodation with the Czechs would invalidate the Ausgleich and dissolve the Dual Monarchy.

Final Defeat in Germany and Reconciliation with Prussia

Because Russia was aligned with Prussia and because Britain had retreated into isolationism, Austria-Hungary turned to France as an ally in its bid to regain leadership in Germany. France wanted gains in Germany at Prussia's expense and was receptive to an alliance. Open cooperation with French expansionist ambitions, however, was inconsistent with Austria-Hungary's efforts to be the leader and defender of the German nation. The success of the alliance thus depended on France's position as the defender of the south German states against Prussia--which France failed to do.

France declared war on Prussia and invaded German territory in July 1870. The south German states rallied to Prussia's side in the Franco-Prussian War, and Beust's patient effort to detach those states from Prussia lay in ruins. Austria watched helplessly as Prussia, the presumed underdog, quickly and soundly defeated France. In January 1871, Prussia founded the Second German Empire, uniting the German states without Austria.

Unable to undo what Prussian military prowess had wrought in Germany, Austria-Hungary trimmed its sails accordingly. Count Gyula Andrássy, a Hungarian, replaced Beust as foreign minister, and the empire's foreign policy began to reflect the anti-Russian mentality of the Hungarians. Before 1871 ended, Austria-Hungary and Germany were working toward a united foreign policy.

This diplomatic cooperation with Prussian-dominated Germany contributed to the internal political stability of Austria-Hungary. Exclusion from a united Germany was a psychological shock for German Austrians because their claim to leadership in the Habsburg Empire had rested in part on their leadership of the German nation. Cut off from Germany, they became just one of many national groups in the Habsburg Empire and constituted only slightly more than one-third of Austria's population. Had Prussia remained hostile, Austria-Hungary's German population might have been the excuse for Prussian territorial ambitions similar to those harbored by the other nation-states that surrounded Austria-Hungary. Aligned with Austria-Hungary, however, Prussia distanced itself from German nationalists in Austria-Hungary, and the annexation movement remained politically insignificant. But, because German Austrians no longer had their majority status guaranteed by participation in the larger German nation, many felt increasingly vulnerable and threatened. German Austrians thus became open to a nationalism based on ethnic fear and hostility that contrasted with the self-confident Liberal nationalism of earlier decades.

The Eastern Question

Having reconciled itself to exclusion from Germany and Italy, Austria-Hungary turned to the east, where declining Turkish power made the Balkans the focus of international rivalries. Foreign Minister Andrássy was opposed to any annexation of Balkan territories because that would have increased the empire's Slavic population. Ideally, he favored maintenance of Turkish authority in order to check the expansion of Russian influence. This option, however, was not viable. To prevent either Russia from replacing Turkey as the dominant power in the region or the already independent Balkan states (Serbia, Montenegro, Greece, and Romania) from dividing up the remaining Turkish territory, Austria-Hungary was forced to seek a partition of the Balkans with Russia.

Because Germany was aligned with both Russia and Austria-Hungary, it acted as a moderating force on Russia to prevent war between its partners in the 1870s. So successful was Germany at limiting Russian gains after the costly Russo-Turkish War (1877-78), that Russia's relations with Germany cooled considerably. With Germany's support, Austria-Hungary acquired Bosnia and Hercegovina as part of the settlement to that war. Andrássy, however, did not directly annex Bosnia and Hercegovina but obtained the right of an Austro-Hungarian occupation, while Turkey retained sovereignty.

With relations strained between Russia and Germany, Austria-Hungary exploited Germany's need to strengthen its position against France and obtained an anti-Russian alliance. Under the resulting Dual Alliance, Austria-Hungary and Germany pledged to help defend the other against an attack by Russia. In the event of war between Germany and France, however, Austria-Hungary promised nothing more than neutrality unless Russia were also involved. As favorable as the Dual Alliance appeared, it drew Austria-Hungary into Otto von Bismarck's web of alliances and diplomatic maneuverings. Austria-Hungary thus became party to conflicts with France and Britain, countries with which it had no directly conflicting interests. The Triple Alliance signed by Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary in 1882, for example, mainly protected Italian and German interests against France and did nothing to resolve outstanding issues between Austria-Hungary and Italy.

Great-power tensions in the Balkans eased in the 1890s, as Africa and the colonial territories in the Far East became the focus of competition among European powers. Although Austria-Hungary was not involved in this colonial competition, Russia was. Its interests in the Far East paved the way for an accommodation with Austria-Hungary to maintain the status quo in the Balkans. In 1903, however, Serbia, a Balkan country that European powers had assigned to the Austro-Hungarian sphere of influence, launched an expansionistic program directed against Austria-Hungary. Without Russian support, however, Serbia's threat was not a major concern.

Internal Developments in Austria

The Czech boycott of the Austrian parliament enabled the German Austrian Liberals to dominate the government of Austria until the late 1870s. They used their position to block concessions to Czechs and Poles in the early days of the Dual Monarchy, and they further protected their interests in 1873 by altering the franchise law to increase the representation in parliament of their constituency--the urban, ethnically German population and assimilated Jews. The Liberals' legislative program focused on anticlerical measures, but conflict over foreign policy issues, not religious ones, caused the Liberals' fall from power in 1879. The Liberals opposed the annexation of Bosnia and Hercegovina--which was favored by the emperor--and claimed certain powers in the conduct of foreign policy that Franz Joseph saw as an infringement on his sovereign authority.

After the fall of the Liberals, a nonparty government known as the Iron Ring was formed under Eduard Taaffe. Intended to encircle and limit the influence of the Liberals, the Iron Ring represented court interests and enjoyed broad support from clerical parties, German Austrian conservatives, Poles, and Czech representatives, who had decided to end their boycott. Backed by this comfortable parliamentary majority, the executive branch was able to operate smoothly. Although the concessions given the Czechs in return for their support were linguistic and cultural rather than political, the concessions raised sensitive issues because the expanded use of the Czech language in Bohemian public life weighed heavily on the ethnic German minority.

The major legislative initiative of the Taaffe government was the 1883 franchise reform. This measure broadened the ocioeconomic base of the electorate and thus weakened the support of the Liberals while strengthening the conservatives. An even broader franchise reform was proposed in 1893 after the election of 1891, which had been conducted in an atmosphere of heightened ethnic tensions in Bohemia. The proposed reform would have given the vote to all male citizens over the age of twenty-five and thus diluted still further the middle-class urban vote that the court associated with fervid nationalism. The bill, however, was widely rejected by the conservative backers of the Iron Ring, and Taaffe resigned.

Ethnic tensions, however, did not subside, even though a modified version of the franchise legislation proposed in 1893 was ultimately enacted. With the parliament highly fragmented both nationally and politically, Minister-President Count Kasimir Badeni offered new concessions to the Czechs in 1897 to forge the majority coalition he needed to conduct customs and trade policy negotiations with the Hungarians. These concessions, which dealt with the use of the Czech language by the bureaucracy, inflamed German-speaking Austrians. Violent rioting on a nearrevolutionary scale erupted not only in Bohemia but also in Vienna and Graz. The Badeni government fell. Because no effective majority could be assembled in the polarized parliament, the government increasingly used emergency provisions that allowed the emperor to enact laws when parliament was not in session.

The political stalemate in parliament was a reflection of socioeconomic changes in the empire that were heightening tensions among social classes and nationalities. Although the economic and psychological impact of the economic crash of 1873 endured for some time, Austria experienced steady industrialization and urbanization in the late nineteenth century. By 1890 Austria stood midway between the rural societies that bordered it on the east and south and the industrially advanced societies of Western Europe.

The German-speaking middle class, including assimilated Jews, had been the first group to translate growing numerical and economic power into political leverage. Even after the 1879 fall of the Liberal government, which had represented this group's interests, the government had to consider the concerns of the German-speaking middle class in order to maintain political stability.

In contrast to that of the middle class, the positions of the aristocracy and the Roman Catholic Church weakened. Individual aristocrats played prominent roles in the government, but the bureaucracy was assuming many functions once played by the aristocracy as a whole. For the church, the 1855 concordat between the empire and the Vatican had been a high-water mark for its formal role in political life. The Liberals' anticlerical legislation and abrogation of the concordat in 1870 curtailed the church's public presence and influence. Nonetheless, popular support for the church remained strong, and a new form of Catholic political participation was beginning to take shape based on a socially progressive platform endorsed by the 1891 papal encycylical Rerum Novarum. This largely urban movement coalesced into the Christian Social Party (Christlichsoziale Partei--CSP). Papal support was not sufficient to win the new party the approval of the conservative Austrian bishops, who continued to work through the older clerical-oriented parties.

Initially, the CSP found strong support in Vienna and controlled the city administration at the turn of the century. Nonetheless, the party was unable to hold its desired base among industrial workers in the face of competition from the Social Democratic Workers' Party (Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei-- SDAP). Founded in 1889 at a unity conference of moderate and radical socialists, the SDAP adhered to a revisionist Marxist program. The SDAP became a political home for many Austrian Jews uncomfortable with the growing anti-Semitism of the German nationalist movement, the other major political current of the time.

Rising ethnic tensions made it difficult for political parties to ignore the influence of German nationalism in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. The Liberal movement faded, largely because of its resistance to becoming a specifically German party, and dissatisfied Liberals were key figures in the formation of new nationalist movements and parties. Even though the CSP and SDAP were based on political ideologies that transcended national identity, they too were obliged to make concessions in their program to German nationalism. In the late 1890s, all German-oriented parties, with the exceptions of the SDAP and the Catholic People's Party, united in the German Front. The specific demands of the German Front were modest, but by calling for recognition of a special position for Germans in light of their historic role in the empire, German Austrians were on a collision course with other national groups.

Austria History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress