History of Austria


Division and Rebellion

Ferdinand I died in 1564, and Habsburg territories in Central Europe were divided among his three sons, with the eldest, Maximilian III (r. 1564-76), becoming Holy Roman Emperor. Although Maximilian's sympathetic policies toward the Protestants contrasted with his brothers' efforts to reestablish Catholicism as the sole religion in their lands, military policy, not religious doctrine, was to divide the dynasty in the final years of the sixteenth century and open the door to the religious wars of the seventeenth century.

Maximilian's son, Rudolf II (r. 1576-1612), succeeded his father as both king of Hungary and Holy Roman Emperor. After the Turks reopened the war in Hungary in 1593, Rudolf was blamed for the rebellion among Protestant nobles in Royal Hungary caused by his brutal conduct of the war. Backed by junior members of the dynasty, Rudolf's younger brother, Matthias (r. 1612-19), confiscated Rudolf's lands, restored order, and, after Rudolf's death, became Holy Roman Emperor. But the religious and political concessions that the two brothers had made to the nobility to win their support in this dynastic feud created new dangers for the Habsburgs.

The childless Matthias chose his cousin Ferdinand as his successor. To facilitate Ferdinand's eventual election as Holy Roman Emperor, Matthias secured his election as king of Bohemia in 1617. Before accepting Ferdinand as king, however, the Protestant nobility of Bohemia had required this strong proponent of the Catholic Counter-Reformation to confirm the religious charter granted them by Rudolf II. A dispute over the charter in 1618 triggered a rebellion by the Protestant nobles. Hopes for an arbitrated settlement were dashed when Matthias died in March 1619, and other areas under Habsburg control rebelled against Habsburg rule.

The Thirty Years' War, 1618-48

The anti-Habsburg rebellions reflected the rising tensions between Catholics and Protestants in the early 1600s. Proponents of the Counter-Reformation, often operating under Habsburg protection, were reaping the fruits of a generation of work: monastic life was reviving, Catholic intellectual life was regaining confidence, and prominent figures were returning to the Catholic Church. As a result, Protestants were increasingly on the defensive. The German princes split into two military camps based on religious affiliation: the Evangelical Union and the Catholic League.

In August 1619, a Bohemian diet elected as king the Protestant elector-prince of the Palatinate, Frederick V, and the conclave of elector-princes elected Ferdinand II (r. 1619-37) Holy Roman Emperor. On November 8, 1620, a force combining troops from the Catholic League and the imperial army decisively defeated Frederick V's largely mercenary force at the Battle of White Mountain. Throughout the 1620s, the combined imperial and Catholic forces maintained the offensive in Germany, enabling Ferdinand to establish his authority in the Hereditary Lands, Bohemia, and Hungary.

Equating Protestantism with disloyalty, Ferdinand imposed religious restrictions throughout the Hereditary Lands. In 1627 he implemented a long-planned decree to make Bohemia a one-confession state: Protestants were given six months to convert or leave the country. In the face of a strong Hungarian nationalist movement headed by the Calvinist prince of Transylvania, however, Ferdinand could maintain his hold on Royal Hungary only by confirming guarantees of religious freedom.

Foreign intervention by Denmark, Sweden, and France kept Ferdinand from bringing the war to a conclusion through military power and also frustrated his efforts in the mid-1630s to reach a compromise with the Protestant German princes. The subsequent military campaigns of the Thirty Years' War, however, only marginally affected those portions of the Habsburg territories that are part of modern Austria.

The Peace of Westphalia

The Thirty Years' War was finally ended in 1648 by the Peace of Westphalia. The treaty guaranteed the religious and political constitution of the Holy Roman Empire, giving the German princes the sovereign right to settle the religious question in their respective territories. France also achieved its main war aim because the costly war and the concessions to the princes effectively stopped the Habsburgs from transforming the Holy Roman Empire into an absolutist state under their direction. Nonetheless, in their own lands, the Habsburgs enjoyed greater political and religious control than before the war: they had gained loyal new followers from among the nobles by redistributing estates confiscated from rebels, and they were free to enforce religious conformity, which they did based on the model applied earlier in Bohemia.

Austria History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress