Friday, March 20, 2009

A Primer in Austrian and Habsburg History

We need to talk about Austria-Hungary.  
The Dual Monarchy, as Austria-Hungary was sometimes called, was the most recent constitutional shape of the Habsburg Empire, based on what was for the house of Austria the tumultuous changes of 1866/67.  

Actually, the Habsburg Empire was intimately connected with the history of Central Europe and Europe as a whole for hundreds of years.  The Habsburg family, with its seat in Vienna, ruled the Holy Roman Empire for its last centuries, until Napoleon ended the HRE in 1806.  From the confederal, decentralized nature of the Holy Roman Empire, and from the policies of the Habsburg family, the dynamic of Habsburg rule tended to be the soft touch, negotiation instead of coercion, local autonomy instead of centralized control, marriage instead of war.   
Indeed, we have to make a distinction here.  The Holy Roman Empire included almost everything that is today Germany, Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Luxembourg.  It also included some territories now in Italy, France, Switzerland, Poland, Russia, and Croatia. (Have I missed anything?)  The Holy Roman Empire was held together as a confederation of independent entities that lay along a huge continuum, from small knightly holdings and medium-sized walled towns to big, important states that could boast armies 30,000 strong.  
The Habsburg family held this position for several hundred years--held it very adroitly, one must say.  It certainly wasn't easy.  But a note here:  the Habsburg Emperors were at the same time heads of the family's "crown lands," territories which they held individually and under various titles:  "Archduke of Styria," for example, or "King of Hungary."  In fact, acquiring much eastern real estate in the long struggle with the Ottoman Empire, the Habsburg Empire was in part outside of (mostly to the east of) the Holy Roman Empire, which they also controlled.  (And yes, a branch of the family was also in power in Spain from early sixteenth century until the early eighteenth.)
Back to the Holy Roman Empire as a whole, it will perhaps be a surprise to find out that there were well over a thousand independent "countries" or states in this confederation, and even if some of the marginally independent categories are excluded, there were still nearly 350 independent states.   The role of the Emperor was to keep an eye on the whole thing, but no one ever imagined that all of the Empire "belonged"  to the Emperor.  Each unit guarded its autonomy fiercely. 
But there is more.  The Emperor's position was not hereditary, but elective.  Yes, you heard that right.  Elective.   Now, the electorate was pretty small:  seven (later eight).  Originally the heads of tribes in the tenth century, by the thirteenth century, the Electors were the heads of some of the leading states of the Holy Roman Empire--well, sort of, since for good measure one of the electoral princes was the King of Bohemia, whose involvement was real but limited in some ways.  The other electoral states were The Prince-Bishopric of Mainz, the Prince-Bishopric of Trier, the Prince Bishopric of Cologne, the County Palatine, the Duchy of Saxony, and the Margavate of Brandenburg.  Bavaria would be added later, and some of these would drop out, but the important thing is that these rich, powerful, influential heads of states (some of them in holy orders) voted on the new Emperor at the end of each reign. 
This process meant, of course, that any ruling Emperor hoping for his son (or in one case, his daughter) to become Emperor would have to play nice with the Electoral states:  giving them subsidies, granting various favors, marrying off children to their royal houses, etc.  
On the other hand, within the multifaceted "constitution" of the Empire, one of the Emperor's other important roles was to help the smaller units of the Empire defend themselves from the aggression of the more powerful units.  The Emperor did this partly through the Reichstag, a tripartite council representing elites throughout Central Europe whose legislation was theoretically binding even on the Emperor.   Similarly, the Reich Court of Chamber exercised wide-ranging jurisdiction to assist the king when injustices among the states occurred.   The Emperor could even use these institutions to help him place  a "ban" on offending individuals or states, placing them outside the law and making them free game for anyone to kill or expropriate.   In these ways, the Emperor used his position to coordinate the military forces of the hundreds of less powerful states so that, collectively, they could confront any of the powerful German states.   
But all this began to crumble with important changes in 1648.  And by the time Napoleon put paid to this Empire by defeating the Austrians and Prussians and reorganizing Central Europe in 1805/6, many of these habits of decentralization and localism had gone into decline.  Indeed, many of the smallest states simply disappeared, folded into neighboring countries:  from over three hundred states to thirty-eight or thirty-nine.  All of these trends continued during the period of the "Germanic Confederation," which lasted from 1814 to 1867. 
Two important trends marked this period for the Habsburg Empire.   Indeed, during this period, the old rivalry between the Habsburgs in Vienna and the Hohenzollerns in Berlin (Prussia/Brandenburg) reached a zenith in the light of nineteenth-century nationalism.  In the 1860s, Otto von Bismarck engineered three wars which effected the final split of "Germany" from the influence of the Habsburgs.  The new "German Empire" was founded in 1871.  But defeated by the Prussians in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, the Austrian lands had been reorganized to reflect the decline of Vienna within its lands.  Henceforth, from 1867, the Habsburg "crown lands" and their appendages were organized into two parts of the Empire:  the Hungarian part with a seat at Budapest and the Austrian part with a seat at Vienna.  The Habsburgs were heads of both, it is true, but the governments were more or less independent (with a couple of exceptions, the army being one).  So the Emperor of Austria (well, this is a sort of nickname) was also the King of Hungary.  Hence, the K.- und K.  Army (the kaiserliche und k√∂nigliche Armee--the Imperial and Royal Army).  
Well, I know that we haven't gotten to the Great War yet, but this is enough for now.  Some deep history is necessary.  I think we can learn from it some of the dynamics of the German world that it might have helped the peacemakers of 1919 to know.  More on the same topic--coming up.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post Mr. Tooley ! This is a very interesting topic to me, and I thought your information on the Holy Roman Empire was very good.


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Design of a Violent Century by Hunt Tooley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.