History of Austria

THE ALPINE-DANUBIAN REGION BEFORE THE HABSBURG DYNASTY

The Celtic and Roman Eras

Around 400 B.C., Celtic peoples from Western Europe settled in the eastern Alps. A Celtic state, Noricum, developed around the region's ironworks in the second century B.C. The Romans occupied Noricum without resistance in 9 B.C. and made the Danube River the effective northern frontier of their empire.

North of the Danube, various German tribes were already extending their territory. By the latter half of the second century A.D., they were making devastating incursions into Roman territories. Nevertheless, Roman arms and diplomacy maintained relative stability until the late fourth century, when other Germanic tribes, including the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, and Vandals, were able to establish settlements in Roman territory south of the Danube. The Roman province gradually became indefensible, and much of the Christian, Romanized population evacuated the region in 488. In 493 the Ostrogoths invaded Italy, seized control of what remained of the western half of the Roman Empire, and brought the Roman era in the eastern Alps to an end.

The Early Medieval Era

Various Germanic and Slavic tribes vied for control of the eastern Alpine-Danubian region following the withdrawal and collapse of Roman authority. Among the Germanic tribes, Alemanni (later known as Swabians) and Bavarians were the most notable. The Alemanni had arrived during the Roman era and by 500 were permanently established in most of modern-day Switzerland and the Austrian province of Vorarlberg. The early history of the Bavarians is not clear, but by the mid-500s, they were established alongside remnants of earlier, Romanized peoples in areas north and south of the present-day border between Austria and Germany. Both Swabians and Bavarians were subject to another Germanic tribe, the Franks, but effective Frankish control did not occur until the time of Emperor Charlemagne in the late 700s.

Slavic peoples, including Slovenes, Croats, Czechs, and Slovaks, settled in the region as subject peoples of the Avars, a nomadic tribe, and gradually absorbed their nomadic overlords. During the Carolingian era (eighth and ninth centuries), the areas of Slavic settlement, like those of the Swabians and Bavarians, became subject to the Franks.

Under Frankish patronage, Irish monks, most notably Saint Columban and Saint Gall, pioneered the Christian evangelization of the region in the seventh and eighth centuries. Their work gave rise to important monasteries whose agricultural activities on the frontiers of the Carolingian Empire helped open the region's primeval forests to wider settlement. Eventually integrated into the feudal political structure, the abbots of these monasteries vied with bishops and secular lords for religious and political influence well into the modern era. Bishoprics were established in four major Bavarian towns in the 730s. Salzburg, the only one of these to lie within modern Austria, was raised to the status of an archbishopric in 798 and was given jurisdiction over the other bishoprics. Salzburg became the center of the Christian evangelization efforts in the Slavic territories, which were instrumental in spreading the political reach of the Carolingian Empire.

The Holy Roman Empire and the Duchy of Austria

The gradual eastward extension of the Carolingian Empire was stopped by the arrival of the Magyars--a Finno-Ugric people who form the ethnic core of the Hungarian nation--in the Danubian region in 862. Within fifty years, the Magyars had seized the Hungarian plain, conquered Moravia and the eastern Danubian marches of the Carolingian Empire, and raided deep into Frankish territory. A reorganization of the German portion of the Carolingian Empire in the first half of the tenth century enabled the Germans to rally their forces and defeat a Magyar invasion force at the Battle of Lechfeld in 955. This new and essentially German empire became known as the Holy Roman Empire and eventually regained much of the territory lost to the Magyars. Nevertheless, the Magyars' continuing military strength and their conversion to Christianity during the reign of King Stephen (r. 997-1038) enabled Hungary to become a legitimate member of Christian Europe and check German expansion to the east.

Under the Holy Roman Empire, the territories that constitute modern Austria were a complex feudal patchwork under the sway of numerous secular and ecclesiastical lords. Most of the territories originally fell within the boundaries of the Duchy of Bavaria. Over the years, various territories were effectively detached from Bavaria, either becoming part of the newly established duchies of Carinthia (976) and Styria (1180) or, like Salzburg and Tirol, falling under the jurisdiction of powerful bishops. In the final years of the reign of Emperor Otto the Great (r. 936-73), a small margravate roughly corresponding to the present-day province of Lower Austria was formed within Bavaria. This margravate became known as Ostarrichi (literally, Eastern Realm), from which the modern name Austria (Österreich) ultimately derives. The Margravate of Austria was detached from Bavaria and became a separate duchy in 1156.

Between 976 and 1246, the Duchy of Austria was one of extensive feudal possessions of the Babenberg family. Through their ties of blood and marriage to two successive German imperial dynasties, the Babenbergs gradually acquired lands roughly corresponding to the modern provinces of Upper Austria, Lower Austria, Styria, and Carinthia. When the Babenberg line died out in 1246, their lands passed to the ambitious king of Bohemia, Otakar II. As king of Bohemia, Otakar was one of the small circle of "elector-princes" who were entitled to participate in the election of the Holy Roman Emperor. When Otakar failed to be elected emperor in 1273, he contested the election of the new emperor, Rudolf von Habsburg. The Bohemian king met his defeat and death in battle in 1278, and the former Babenberg lands passed to the Habsburgs, who added them to their already extensive lands in present-day Switzerland, southwestern Germany, and eastern France.

Austria History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress