History of Austria


The Habsburg Dynasty in the Late Medieval Era

Although the Duchy of Austria was just one of the duchies and lands that the Habsburgs eventually acquired in the eastern Alpine-Danubian region, the Habsburgs became known as the House of Austria after the Swiss peasantry ousted them from their original family seat in Habichtsburg in the Swiss canton of Aargau in 1386. The name Austria subsequently became an informal way to refer to all the lands possessed by the House of Austria, even though it also remained the proper, formal name of a specific region. Thus, through the legacy of common rule by the House of Austria, the lands that constitute the modern state of Austria indirectly adopted the name of one region of the country as the formal national name in the early twentieth century.

Because the elector-princes of the Holy Roman Empire generally preferred a weak, dependent emperor, the powerful Habsburg Dynasty only occasionally held the imperial title in the 150 years after Rudolf's death in 1291. After the election of Frederick III in 1452 (r. 1452-93), however, the dynasty came to enjoy such a dominant position among the German nobility that only one non-Habsburg was elected emperor in the remaining 354- year history of the Holy Roman Empire.

The Habsburgs' near monopoly of the imperial title, however, did not make the Habsburg Empire and the Holy Roman Empire synonymous. The Habsburg Empire was a supernational collection of territories united only through the accident of common rule by the Habsburgs, and many of the territories were not part of the Holy Roman Empire. In contrast, the Holy Roman Empire was a defined political and territorial entity that became identified with the German nation as the nation-state assumed greater importance in European politics.

Although the succession of Holy Roman Emperors from the Habsburg line gave the House of Austria great prestige in Germany and Europe, the family's real power base was the lands in its possession, that is, the Habsburg Empire. This was because the Holy Roman Empire was a loosely organized feudal state in which the power of the emperor was counterbalanced by the rights and privileges of the empire's other princes, lords, and institutions, both secular and ecclesiastical.

Habsburg power was significantly enhanced in 1453, when Emperor Frederick III confirmed a set of rights and privileges, dubiously claimed by the Habsburgs, that paralleled those of the elector-princes, in whose ranks the family did not yet sit. In addition, the lands the Habsburgs' possessed in 1453 were made inheritable through both the male and the female line. Because feudal holdings usually reverted to the emperor to dispose of as he wished when the holder of the fief died, the right of inheritable succession measurably strengthened the Habsburgs. The lands they held in 1453 became known collectively as the Hereditary Lands, and--with the exception of territories possessed by the archbishops of Salzburg and Brixen--encompassed most of modern Austria and portions of Germany, France, Italy, Croatia, and Slovenia.

Territorial Expansion, Division, and Consolidation

The Habsburgs also increased their influence and power through strategic alliances ratified by marriages. Owing to premature deaths and/or childless marriages within the Burgundian and Spanish dynasties into which his grandfather, Maximilian I (r. 1493-1519), and his father had married, Emperor Charles V (r. 1519-56) inherited not only the Hereditary Lands but also the Franche-Comté and the Netherlands (both of which were French fiefs) and Spain and its empire in the Americas.

Challenged on his western borders by France and on his eastern borders by the Turkish Ottoman Empire, Charles V divided his realm geographically in 1522 to achieve more effective rule. Retaining the western half under his direct control, he entrusted the eastern half, the Hereditary Lands, to his brother, Ferdinand (r. 1522-64). Although Ferdinand did not become Holy Roman Emperor until 1556 when Charles V abdicated, this territorial division effectively created two branches of the Habsburg Dynasty: the Spanish Habsburgs, descended through Charles V, and the Austrian Habsburgs, descended through Ferdinand.

In addition to the lands he received from his brother, Ferdinand also increased his territorial reach by marrying into the Jagiellon family, the royal family of Hungary and Bohemia. When his brother-in-law, King Louis, died fighting the Turks at the Battle of Mohács in 1526, Ferdinand claimed the right of succession. Although the diets representing the nobility of Bohemia (and its dependencies of Moravia and Silesia) did not acknowledge Ferdinand's hereditary rights, they formally elected him king of Bohemia. As king of Bohemia, he also became an elector-prince of the Holy Roman Empire. In Hungary and in the subordinate Kingdom of Croatia-Slavonia-Dalmatia, however, Ferdinand faced the rival claim of a Hungarian nobleman and the reality of the Turkish conquest of the country. He was able to assert authority only over the northern and western edges of the country, which became known as Royal Hungary. His Hungarian rival became a vassal of the Turks, ruling over Transylvania in eastern Hungary. The rest of Hungary became part of the Ottoman Empire in 1603.

Although Ferdinand undertook various administrative reforms in order to centralize authority and increase his power, no meaningful integration of the Hereditary Lands and the two newly acquired kingdoms occurred. In contrast to the authority of kings of Western Europe, where feudal structures were already in decline, Ferdinand's authority continued to rest on the consent of the nobles as expressed in the local diets, which successfully resisted administrative centralization.

The Protestant Reformation in the Habsburg Lands

From the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in the 1520s, Protestant doctrines were welcomed by the people living in the areas under Habsburg domination. By the middle of the sixteenth century, most inhabitants were Protestant. Lutherans predominated in German-speaking areas, except in Tirol, where the Anabaptists were influential. Nevertheless, the Roman Catholic Church retained the support of the Habsburg Dynasty and was able to maintain a strong presence throughout the area.

Religious violence and serious persecution were rare after the 1520s, and an uneasy coexistence and external tolerance prevailed for most of the sixteenth century. Ferdinand pressed Rome for concessions that would bridge the positions of moderate reformers and Catholics, but at the Council of Trent (1545-63), the Catholic Church chose instead a vigorous restatement of Catholic doctrine combined with internal reforms. The council thus hardened lines of divisions between Catholicism and Protestantism and laid the foundation for the Counter-Reformation, which the Habsburgs would pursue aggressively in the 1600s.

The Turkish Threat

After the Turkish siege of Vienna in 1529, Ferdinand recognized that defense of the Habsburg lands required that Hungary form a bulwark against the Turks. Although Turkey's ultimate objective was the conquest of Europe, Western Europe did not see the Turks as a threat and was unwilling to aid Ferdinand in the defense of the continent's eastern borders. He thus signed a peace agreement with the Turks in 1562 that formalized the stalemated status quo in Hungary.

Austria History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress