History of Austria


The Napoleonic Wars

What began as a retrenchment in Austria's reform program ground to a complete halt when the international crisis caused by the French Revolution engulfed Europe in a generation of war. Meeting in Potsdam in 1791, Leopold II and the king of Prussia jointly declared that the revolutionary situation in France was a common concern of all sovereigns. Although the declaration did not become the framework for European military intervention in France as its authors had hoped, it set Austria and the French Revolution on an ideological collision course. In April 1792, revolutionary France declared war on Austria.

The first war lasted for five years until Austria, abandoned by its allies, was forced to make peace on unfavorable terms. Austria renewed the war against France in 1799 and again in 1805 but was swiftly defeated both times. In the otherwise unfavorable settlement after the defeat in 1805, however, Austria did receive Salzburg, a territory formerly ruled by an archbishop, in compensation for the loss of various Italian and German possessions.

Because French domination of Germany raised the possibility that Napoleon Bonaparte or one of his subordinates could be elected Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold's son, Franz II (r. 1792- 1835), took two steps to protect Habsburg interests. First, to guarantee his family's continued imperial status, he adopted a new, hereditary title, Emperor of Austria, in 1804, thus becoming Franz I of Austria. Second, to preclude completely the possibility of Napoleon's election, in 1806 he renounced the title of Holy Roman Emperor and dissolved the Holy Roman Empire.

In the final years of the decade, the German Habsburg area was swept with anti-French nationalist fervor. Erroneously believing that similar nationalist fervor throughout Germany would produce a victory, Austria declared war on France in April 1809. In the Tirol, then under Bavarian rule, the peasants, led by Andreas Hofer, rebelled and scored surprising victories before being subdued by Napoleon's forces. Elsewhere in Germany, however, nationalist feeling had little effect. Austria's defeat was swift, and significant territorial losses followed.

In the wake of this defeat, Franz appointed a new foreign minister, Clemens von Metternich, who sought reconciliation with France. He accomplished this by arranging a marriage between Franz's daughter, Marie Louise, and Napoleon, who was eager for the prestige of marriage into one of the principal dynasties of Europe and the creation of an heir. The marriage took place in the spring of 1810 but yielded little immediate return for Austria.

In 1813 Napoleon's position began to weaken. His invasion of Russia had failed, and Britain was scoring victories in the Iberian Peninsula. Both sides of the conflict began bidding for Austria's support. In August of that year, Austria broke its alliance with France and declared war. Despite generous subsidies from Britain, the final campaigns against Napoleon in 1814 and 1815 strained Austria's financial and human resources. Thus, Austria emerged as a victor from the war but in a severely weakened state.

The Congress of Vienna

From September 1814 to June 1815, representatives of the European powers met in Vienna. Guided by Metternich, the Congress of Vienna redrew the map of Europe and laid the foundation for a long period of European peace. The Habsburg Empire emerged with boundaries both more extensive and compact than it had had for several centuries. Belgium and the Habsburg lands in southwest Germany were lost, but Austria regained all other possessions that it had held in 1792 and virtually all of those it had obtained during the long years of war, including Salzburg. The Holy Roman Empire was not resurrected but was replaced with a German Confederation composed of thirty-five sovereign princes and four free cities. Austria held the permanent presidency of the confederation and probably had more real influence in Germany than it had had under the Holy Roman Empire. Austria also enjoyed the dominant position on the Italian peninsula, where it possessed the northern territories of Lombardy and Venetia.

The wartime allies--Austria, Britain, Russia, and Prussia-- concluded the Congress of Vienna by signing the Quadruple Alliance, which pledged them to uphold the peace settlement. In a secondary document, the European monarchs agreed to conduct their policies in accordance with the Christian principles of charity, peace, and love. This "Holy Alliance," proposed by the Russian tsar, was of little practical import, but it gave its name to the cooperative efforts of Austria, Russia, and Prussia to maintain conservative governments in Europe.

Although Austria emerged from the Congress of Vienna as one of the great powers in Europe, throughout the nineteenth century its status and territorial integrity depended on the support of at least one of the other great powers. As long as the allies were willing to cooperate in the "Congress System" to maintain the peace, order, and stability of Europe, Austrian interests were protected. But the other great powers, which were better able to defend their interests by force, did not always share Austria's devotion to Metternich's creation.

Austria History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress