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Austria - From Kingdom to Empire

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

Austria: From Kingdom to Empire

Austria was a kingdom within the Holy Roman Empire in 1780, when Joseph II Hapsburg assumed full power. Before that date he had ruled jointly with Empress Maria Theresa, his mother.

Both Maria Theresa and Joseph were enlightened monarchs, more forward- looking in their policies than most other European rulers. For example, they abolished judicial use of torture in 1776. They also cut back on the ostentatious spending that was a feature of most European courts, as exemplified by Versailles. Joseph especially preferred a simpler style of living. He often described himself as “first servant of the state.” However, being the “first servant” did not make Joseph less of an autocrat. The difference between him and a monarch like Peter the Great or Louis XIV (see Chapter 6) was that Joseph intended to be a benevolent despot. He believed that it was his duty to oversee his subjects just as a loving father would care for his family. Just as the father considered himself the wisest and most mature individual in the home, thus deserving of total authority, Joseph II believed his royal birth made him the person best fit- ted to run his own kingdom.

The Hapsburgs were generous patrons of the arts. Vienna, Austria’s largest and most important city, was perhaps the most cosmopolitan city in Europe in the late 1700s. Vienna saw the birth of the Rococo style of architecture, which was lighter and more fanciful than the Baroque style that had preceded it. Rococo buildings were easily recognized for their elaborate decoration, carvings, and trim; interiors were spacious and airy, furniture was delicate in shape and weight, and color schemes were light and pretty. Vienna was the center of the musical world, with composers Christoph Willibald Gluck, Franz Josef Haydn, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart all being major figures who enjoyed court patronage. Ludwig van Beethoven also spent much of his musical life in Vienna.

Maria Theresa and Joseph were both inclined toward social reform. When Joseph assumed full power in 1780, he quickly relaxed censorship, causing an immediate rise in the number of published books. In 1781, he abolished serfdom throughout Austria; he also took charge of the Austrian civil service, reorganizing it into an efficiently functioning bureaucracy.

Joseph II was a Roman Catholic like all the Hapsburgs before him; however, unlike many of his predecessors, he understood the importance of tolerance in creating a stable realm. In 1781, Joseph issued the Toleration Edicts, which expanded civil rights for Protestants, Orthodox Catholics, and Jews throughout Austria (although social customs continued to pressure Austria’s Jewish citizens to assimilate). Joseph closed numerous monasteries throughout the empire and used their funds to reorganize and improve the Church organization, bringing it under the authority of the government. In a true union of church and state, the clergy became civil servants, their salaries paid by the government. Joseph also instituted a mandatory level of education for priests.

Among his other social reforms, Joseph founded Austria’s General Hospital—the first of its kind in Europe—and one of Europe’s first free public school systems. He passed agricultural reforms that made conditions much easier for individual small farmers. It was no wonder that ordinary Austrians, particularly those of the poorer classes, came to regard Joseph as their defender and protector.

Given his liberal social policies, it is not surprising that Joseph aroused strong opposition from the Austrian nobility. The aristocrats did not welcome his attempts to establish a certain measure of equality in society; they preferred to keep their special privileges and status for themselves. The Church hierarchy did not offer Joseph much support either, resenting what they perceived as interference. In 1790, Joseph reluctantly revoked numerous reforms in the Hungarian region, realizing how unpopular they were with the powerful classes.

Upon his death in 1790, Joseph II was succeeded by his brother, who would rule as Leopold II. Leopold had ruled Tuscany as its Grand Duke since 1765. He shared the reforming instincts of his mother and brother but had generally instituted new programs more slowly and cautiously. Leopold restored certain features of pre-Josephine Austria, particularly as regarded special privileges for the landlords of great estates.

Francis II succeeded his father Leopold II on the latter’s death in 1792. By this time, the French Revolution had made all hereditary monarchs rather apprehensive. Francis was more openly conservative than either his father or his uncle; however, he did not undo the progress that had been made toward modernization. In fact, he oversaw the passage of advanced, enlightened criminal and civil law codes in 1803 and 1811.

Francis was distracted from domestic programs by a 1792 declaration of war from France. The fighting lasted off and on for nearly twenty years, with Austria coming off the worse throughout. In 1792, France’s primary goal was to subdue Belgium and the Rhine region; it did not issue direct threats against Austria until 1800.

The Kingdom of Austria officially became the Austrian Empire in 1804, the year in which Napoleon declared himself emperor of the French. Many hereditary European rulers took this as a personal affront, since Napoleon was not of royal blood and therefore, in their eyes, had no right to assume such a title. Francis’s claim to the title “Emperor of Austria” was largely a symbolic gesture, intended as a reminder of the long-standing status of the Hapsburgs as Holy Roman emperors and kings. Francis’s assumption of the title did not change Austria’s type of government, nor its national borders.

In 1805, Napoleon and the Grand Army marched into Vienna; later that year they won a major victory at the town of Austerlitz. As part of the treaty that ended this stage of the fighting, Austria gained the territory of Salzburg; in return, however, it gave up its rights to other territories, and Francis II finally, officially, and permanently dissolved the Holy Roman Empire (which had existed only as a formality since the days of the Thirty Years’ War).

By 1810 Austria had practically been reduced to the status of a French satellite, and in 1812 Napoleon commandeered thirty thousand Austrians to serve in the Grand Army in its march on Russia. Naturally, Austrians were deeply hostile toward France and its rule; they felt no incentive to serve Napoleon. The fact that the Grand Army had comparatively few French troops is one reason for its downfall in Russia. By 1912, it was composed largely of German, Italian, Polish, Czech, and Austrian soldiers from countries Napoleon had subdued.

The Congress of Vienna made the Austrian Empire a unified, contiguous landmass for the first time in its history. This new Austrian Empire included Hungary, Transylvania, Croatia, the Czech states of Bohemia and Moravia, and the Italian states of Lombardy and Venetia. Austria was also given the responsibility of overseeing the confederation of German states created at the Congress.

Because the Austrian Empire was not culturally homogeneous, the force of nationalism created political and social instability. Too many small ethnic groups within the empire wanted self-determination. Both the Italians and the Hungarians rose up in 1848. Although both rebellions were crushed by virtue of the Austrian state’s military superiority, it was only a matter of time before some measure of independence would become a fact. In 1867, Austria and Hungary formally declared a dual monarchy; from that time, it was known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria would rule both kingdoms, and joint ministries oversaw the foreign affairs and finances of both kingdoms, but Hungary had a separate constitution and a separate legislature.

Having gained its own independence, Hungary now found itself in the same position as Austria: it was a large nation with a diverse population. Hungary granted Croatia a measure of self-determination in 1878. In Austria, ethnic Germans in Bohemia and Moravia were satisfied with the status quo, since Austria was officially a German-speaking nation, but ethnic Czechs in the region demanded greater independence.

Discussion among the Great Powers in 1878 led to Austria’s making the Balkan nation of Bosnia into a protectorate. In 1908, in a move to protect Austrian control of certain trade routes, the empire officially annexed the protectorate. Bosnia’s large and vocal Serbian population immediately began trying to regain Bosnian independence. This strong Serbian nationalism would contribute largely to the outbreak of World War I in 1914 .

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires Practice Test

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