History of Austria


Political and Religious Consolidation under Leopold

Reconstruction of the social, political, and economic infrastructure destroyed by the Thirty Years' War began during the reign of Ferdinand III (r. 1637-57) and continued through the reign of his son, Leopold I (r. 1658-1705). Central to the restoration of the Habsburgs' social and political base was the reestablishment of the Roman Catholic Church. But the Habsburgs did not seek to make the church an independent force within society. They found no contradiction between personal piety and use of religion as a political tool and defended and advanced their sovereign rights over and against the institutional church.

The Habsburg effort to establish religious conformity was based on the model already implemented in Bohemia. Closure of Protestant churches, expulsions, and Catholic appointments to vacated positions eliminated centers of Protestant power. Reform commissions made up of clergy and representatives of local diets appointed missionaries to Protestant areas. After a period of instruction, the populace was given a choice between conversion and emigration--an estimated 40,000 people emigrated between 1647 and 1652.

The reestablishment of Catholic intellectual life and religious orders and monasteries was a key component of Habsburg Counter-Reformation policies. The Jesuits led this effort, and their influence was broadly disseminated throughout Central European society, owing to their excellent schools, near monopoly over higher education, and emphasis on lay organizations, which provided a channel for popular devotional piety. Benedictine, Cistercian, and Augustinian monastic foundations were also revitalized through the careful management of their estates, and their schools rivaled those of the Jesuits.

Through the court's patronage of the arts and religious orders and through public celebrations, both secular and religious, the dynasty transmitted a worldview based on the values of the Counter-Reformation. These values, rather than common governmental institutions and laws, gave the Heriditary Lands a sense of unity and identity that compensated for the continued weakness of administrative bodies at the center of Habsburg rule.

The Turkish Wars and the Siege of Vienna

In 1663 rivalries between the Ottomans and the Habsburgs in Transylvania triggered renewed fighting between the Ottoman Empire and the Habsburg Empire. The Turkish threat, which included a prolonged but unsuccessful siege of Vienna in 1683, prompted Poland, Venice, and Russia to join the Habsburg Empire in repelling the Turks. In 1686 Habsburg forces moved into central Hungary and captured Buda. By 1687 the Ottoman Empire had been eliminated as a power in central Hungary. In the late 1690s, command of the imperial forces was entrusted to Prince Eugene of Savoy. Under his leadership, Habsburg forces won control of all but a small portion of Hungary by 1699.

The War of the Spanish Succession

In 1700 the death of Charles II of Spain ended the Spanish Habsburg line. Spain's steady decline throughout the seventeenth century had already led to minor armed conflicts aimed at a realignment of power among European countries, and these rivalries blossomed into the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14). Both Leopold I and King Louis XIV of France, Charles's two nearest relatives, hoped to establish a junior branch of his own dynasty in Spain. But neither was willing to rule out the possibility that a single heir might someday inherit the lands of both the principal line and its Spanish offshoot. The strong central government and political institutions of France made the possible union of Spain and France a far greater threat to other European countries than the possible union of Spain and the Habsburg lands in Central Europe. Thus, when the dying Spanish king named as his heir Louis's son, Philip, Britain and a number of other European countries rallied to the Habsburg cause.

Despite early victories by the Austro-British alliance, the allies were unable to install the Austrian Archduke Charles on the Spanish throne. As the war dragged on, the alliance began to unravel, especially when, after the death of Leopold's elder son, Charles became Holy Roman Emperor in 1711. The actual unification of the Habsburg lines in Charles VI (r. 1711-40) posed a greater threat to other European powers than did the possible union of war-weakened France and Spain. Austria's allies made peace with France in 1713 and signed the Treaty of Utrecht. Because his former allies negotiated a treaty to protect their own interests, the settlement Charles received when he finally abandoned the war in 1714 was meager: the Spanish Netherlands (present-day Belgium) and various Italian territories.

The Pragmatic Sanction and the War of the Austrian Succession, 1740-48

Although the Habsburg Empire continued to expand in the east at Turkish expense, Charles VI recognized that defense of Austria's position in Europe required greater economic and political centralization to foster the development of a stronger economic base. Because he lacked a male heir, however, the continued unity of the Habsburg Empire was jeopardized. In 1713 Charles promulgated the Pragmatic Sanction to establish the legal basis for transmission of the Habsburg lands to his daughter Maria Theresa (r. 1740-80). The price extracted by local diets and rival European powers for approval of the Pragmatic Sanction, however, was abandonment of many centralizing reforms.

Nonetheless, Charles's concessions did not prevent the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48) from breaking out on his death in 1740. Prussia occupied Bohemia's Silesian duchies that same year. Late in 1741, the elector-prince of Bavaria, Charles Albert, occupied Prague, the capital of Bohemia, with the aid of Saxon and French troops and was crowned king of Bohemia. This paved the way for his election as Holy Roman Emperor in 1742, thus breaking the Habsburgs' three-hundred-year hold on the imperial crown.

The Austrians, however, retook Prague, and Maria Theresa was crowned queen of Bohemia in the spring of 1743. Aided by a British diplomatic campaign, Austria also made important military gains in Central Europe. Thus, when Charles Albert unexpectedly died in January 1745, his son made peace with Austria and agreed to support the Habsburg candidate for emperor. This enabled Maria Theresa's husband, Franz (r. 1745-65), to be elected Holy Roman emperor in October 1745. In the west, the war with France and Spain gradually settled into a military stalemate, and negotiations finally led to the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748.

Although Maria Theresa emerged with most of her empire intact--owing largely to the early support she received from Hungarian nobles--Austria was obliged to permanently cede Silesia, its most economically advanced territory, to Prussia. Recognizing that the costly war with France had done more to promote British colonial interests in North America than its own interests in Central Europe, Austria abandoned its partnership with Britain in favor of closer ties with France. This reversal of alliances was sealed by the marriage of Maria Theresa's youngest daughter, Marie Antoinette, to the future Louis XVI of France.

Austria History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress