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Habsburg Territories


HABSBURG TERRITORIES. The Habsburg territories of central Europe were a diverse and far-flung assortment of lands ruled by the Austrian line of the House of Habsburg. Sometimes dubbed the Habsburg Monarchy by historians, this collection comprised an informal dynastic union of the Austrian Habsburg hereditary lands, or Erblande (acquired by the house in 1278), and the independent crownlands of both the Bohemian and the Hungarian Monarchies (added to its holdings in 1526). Less a state than a political agglutination occasioned by marriage alliances and international pressures, the Habsburg Monarchy was unlike any other.


The medieval core of the Habsburg Monarchy, the Austrian hereditary lands, consisted of several large principalities and related smaller territories. Situated along the Danube River, "Austria" proper included the duchies of Upper and Lower Austria. To the south, "Inner Austria" included the nearby duchies of Styria, Carinthia, and Carniola, while the smaller principalities of Gorizia, Istria, and Trieste extended the realm to the Adriatic. Located far to the west were the county of Tyrol and "Further Austria," or the Vorlande, consisting of the county of Vorarlberg (in the east), the Sundgau, the Breisgau, and Freiburg (in the west), and approximately one hundred scattered enclaves ruled by the Habsburgs in Swabia (in between), which included the oldest ancestral lands. Though largely German, the hereditary lands were by no means linguistically or ethnically homogeneous. To the west and south, segments of the population spoke various Romance languages: Ladin in Vorarlberg, Romansch in western Tyrol, and Italian in Trieste and southern Tyrol. Some areas to the south contained significant Slavic populations: Slovene was spoken in Carniola, as well as parts of Styria, Carinthia, and Gorizia, while Croatian was spoken in Istria. More significant, the Habsburgs ruled each of these territories individually, rather than collectively, and despite some grander pretensions, at times showed little interest in doing otherwise in the face of resistancea pattern they would repeat elsewhere.

The five Bohemian crownlands had existed independent of Habsburg rule for close to five hundred years. They, like the Austrian lands, were politically diverse. Located to the north of the Austrian lands, they consisted of the largely Slavic kingdom of Bohemia and margravate of Moravia, in the south, and the largely German duchy of Silesia and margravates of Upper and Lower Lusatia, in the north. Nonetheless, each territory was linguistically and ethnically mixed. Bohemia and Moravia were predominantly Czech-speaking, with German-speaking minorities in some urban areas and along the western and northern periphery. Nearly all of the nobles and much of the populace in Lusatia and Silesia spoke German, although the Lusatian margravates contained significant numbers of Sorbs, Europe's smallest Slavic ethnic group, and Silesia was home to a large Polish minority, as well as a smaller Czech one.

Like the Bohemian lands, Hungary had a long history as a medieval kingdom before Habsburg rule. The crownlands consisted of the central kingdom on the Danubian plain, mountainous Upper Hungary (Slovakia) to the north along the Carpathians, and Transylvania to the east. Closely associated with Hungary through a centuries-long personal union were the southwestern kingdoms of Croatia and Slavonia. Each territory was quite distinct from the others, with its own estates, laws, and linguistic or ethnic groups. Magyars (Hungarians) predominated in the Danubian plain, while Slavs did elsewhere. Regardless of their ethnic identity or location, political elites usually adopted Magyar speech and customs (less so in Croatia than elsewhere). In contrast, outside of the central kingdom, the peasantry spoke Slovak and Ruthene in the Carpathians; Croatian in to the southwest; and Romanian in Transylvania, where Magyars, Magyarspeaking Szekels, and "Saxon" Germans were also found. In addition, German-speakers could predominate in more urban areas throughout Hungary, and Serbs entered Croatian territory in increasing numbers as the Ottoman Turkish threat increased in 1529.


The Habsburg Monarchy of the early modern period had humble roots in the reign of Rudolf I (ruled 12731291), whose election as emperor of Germany signaled the slow rise of a minor noble house, and whose acquisition of Austria provided the core of his successors' hereditary dominions.

Although subsequent Habsburgs obtained the imperial title, few dramatic changes in the dynasty's fortunes occurred until political marriages arranged by Emperor Maximilian I (ruled 14931519) began to bear fruit. In 1482 his son Philip I (ruled 14821506) inherited the Burgundian territories in the Low Countries from his mother. In 1516 Maximilian's grandson Charles V (ruled 15191556)who would inherit the Austrian territories and become emperor in 1519added his mother's Spanish kingdoms (along with their Italian and overseas possessions) to his father's Burgundian holdings. In 1526 another grandson of Maximilian, Ferdinand I (ruled 15581564), to whom Charles had ceded the Austrian territories in 1521, secured his own elections to the Bohemian and Hungarian crowns when his brother-in-law King Louis II of Bohemia (ruled 15161526) died without an heir in battle with the Turks. Ferdinand would later become German emperor upon his brother's abdication in 1556. It thus came to pass that the House of Habsburg had become divided into two lines, the Spanish and the Austrian, ruling lands far in excess of Maximilian's late-fifteenth-century dreams.

Yet, the central feature of Habsburg rule over these territories was that it proceeded from a different constitutional basis in each one. For this reason, it is important to distinguish the central European Habsburg territories from the Spanish and Burgundian territories and from the German Holy Roman Empire. The successors of Charles V in Spain never ruled the central European lands, despite continuing family alliances, and the empire was a separate political entity that never became a Habsburg possession, even though the Austrian line provided it with a string of elected emperors. They played an important role in German affairs, and since portions of the central European lands belonged to the empire, they were simultaneously territorial princes within it, but the Habsburg Monarchy was not the same as the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. Instead, it was a wildly heterogeneous group of politically independent territories owing allegiance to the Habsburg dynasty.

Remarkably, the house managed to rule each land through traditional rather than centralized institutions, bringing each into a dynastic union with the others only by virtue of providing them with monarchs. Although this union created a limited sense of shared purpose, the individual lands preserved their own identities, political forms, and administrative practices. Thus, in most cases, each land had a system of estates and a territorial diet, along with its own laws, privileges, and customs, all confirmed by succeeding Habsburg rulers.

In the Austrian hereditary lands, governors nominated by the estates and appointed by the prince served as the heads of territorial governments. Yet, greater power lay with the executive councils (die Verordneten) appointed by the estates of each land to oversee affairs whenever the diets were not in session. Ultimately, even more important to the functioning of government were local nobles, who were charged with implementing governmental decrees within their jurisdiction (Herrschaft), and who protected this responsibility as a right.

Rule in the Bohemian and Hungarian crownlands followed a similar pattern, with the diets enjoying even greater control over taxation, the appointment of officials, and the implementation of policy. The Bohemian Court Chancery, an estates' institution staffed by Czech nobles, remained the chief governmental organ of the kingdom. In Hungary, where significant noble privileges limited the scope of Habsburg initiatives, the diet retained control over the implementation of policy. Of course, in both kingdoms, the diets had the right to elect the monarch, although the so-called Renewed Constitution of 1627 abrogated this right in Bohemia, and the Hungarian Diet suspended it for as long as the House of Habsburg could produce a male heir. As was the case in the Austrian lands, the Habsburgs seldom challenged noble power in the estates (excepting Bohemia during the Thirty Years' War), let alone at the local level, until well into the eighteenth century.

Other than the Habsburg court itself, the monarchy simply lacked transterritorial institutions, let alone a general assembly for all its lands. In the sixteenth century, Ferdinand I made a limited attempt to establish a more centralized government in Vienna when he created a Privy Council for policy, a Court Chamber for finance, and Court War Council for defense. In practice, however, only the Privy Council was truly transterritorial, but it was a consultative organ, lacking the power to enforce its decrees. Finance and defense were issues too entangled with territorial privileges for the Court Chamber and Court War Council to have any real effect; their authority in these areas could only be shared with their territorial counterparts. Complicating matters further, of course, were similar institutions in the German empire. In attempting to centralize, Habsburg rulers really had no choice but to create an additional level of administrationthe householdto complement the imperial and territorial institutions already in place. Ferdinand's successors did so, but structural realities always constrained their effectiveness. In any case, Ferdinand himself undermined hopes for lasting change when he divided his territories among his three sons in 1564, passing Bohemia and Hungary (along with the imperial title) to Maximilian II (ruled 15641576), Tyrol and Further Austria to Ferdinand, and the Inner Austrian territories to Charles. Only in 1619 would the territories again be united in personal union under Charles's son Ferdinand II (ruled 16191637).

Nevertheless, despite the centrifugal forces at work, several centripetal forces contributed to the monarchy's perseverance, not the least of which were the needs of international politics and the dynasty's own attempts to foster a shared political culture around its own court. The Habsburg territories provided a bulwark against growing French power in the west and against a persistent threat from the Ottoman Turks in the southeast. The fact that the monarchy was decentralized only increased its appeal to its external allies and its internal nobility, since this status ensured that it would not become a greater threat to the status quo or territorial prerogatives. In fact, early attempts to centralize and consolidate Further Austria into a Swabian duchy by Maximilian I were thwarted, as were later attempts by Charles V and Ferdinand II to increase Habsburg authority in the German empire. Given this state of affairs, Habsburg rulers eventually forged an imperial ideology within their own territories by allying themselves with the Catholic Church and their landed nobility, fostering the interests of a universal church and the territorial estates (following the suppression of Protestantism) in order to secure the dynasty's own interests. The result was a gradual increase in central authority, achieved through existing political institutions and increased reliance upon the court's prestige. As R. J. W. Evans has argued in The Making of the Habsburg Monarchy, this alliance of crown, church, and estates facilitated the processes of Habsburg state building, even if the resulting polity little resembled the more homogeneous nation-states to the west.


Habsburg attempts to consolidate authority proceeded in fits and starts, always limited by difficult political realities. In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Charles V, Ferdinand I, Maximilian II, Rudolf II (ruled 15761612), and Matthias (ruled 16121619) were all constrained by the Reformation in Germany. Nominally Catholic, each sought to support the Catholic Church against Protestantism, but each did so in ways that took into account not only genuine desires for compromise, but also their own reliance upon Protestant nobility in the empire and in the monarchy to turn back the Turkish threat.

Only Matthias's successor, his cousin Ferdinand II, threw his unrestrained support behind the Catholic cause when religious affairs in the empire had reached a point of crisis at the outbreak of the Thirty Years' War (16181648), and Habsburg rule in Bohemia was threatened by a rival claimant to the throne. Pursuing harsh measures against the Bohemian rebels, Ferdinand also sought to secure Habsburg authority within the German empire. Although his attempts in the empire eventually fell short, measures against Protestant nobility in the Austrian hereditary lands and Bohemia proved lastinga feat that makes him one of the most influential rulers in Austrian history. By the mid-seventeenth century, his son Ferdinand III (ruled 16371657) had effectively eliminated the Protestant threat in the Habsburg domains. Although noble privileges remained secure throughout the territories, they were enjoyed by nobles markedly different from the recalcitrant Protestants of the late sixteenth century.

From the crucible of religious antagonisms emerged a Catholic baroque culture that was integral to Habsburg absolutism. Still a bulwark against both France and the Ottoman Empire, the Habsburg Monarchy experienced both successes and failures, but the threat of internal dissent decreased with the consolidation of an invigorated imperial ideology. For during the reigns of Ferdinand II, Ferdinand III, Leopold I (ruled 16581705), Joseph I (ruled 17051711), and Charles VI (ruled 17111740), the Catholic piety of the Habsburg Monarch was turned into a public cult. Catholicism thus provided the language and form of state ritual and served to legitimate Habsburg rule within existing political structures. By creating a governmental ethos, "Austrian Piety" provided a model of religious and political practice to be emulated at court, bound the populace to the cause of Catholic baroque imperialism, and secured the foundations of the Habsburg state.

Ironically, from this context of Catholic ideology and traditional hierarchies emerged the top-down reforms of enlightened absolutism during the second half of the eighteenth century. During the reigns of Maria Theresa (ruled 17401780) and her son Joseph II (ruled 17801790), the ideas and institutions of baroque absolutism proved old and weak in comparison to new programs and structures in place elsewhere in Europe. Yet, neither Maria Theresa nor the bolder Joseph eliminated the traditional forms of Habsburg rule. Instead, they adapted them to increase their rationality, efficiency, and effectiveness. In maintaining the dynasty's alliance with the Catholic Church and the estates, they preserved territorial autonomy and relied upon the prestige of the imperial court. With greater or lesser success, they transformed absolutism from a conservative force to a progressive one. Viewed from the nineteenth century, their actions were clearly not enough, but it is easy to underestimate their contemporary successes. Their reforms went both too far and not far enough. It should surprise no one that they were undermined not only by a resurgent traditionalism but also by an advancing modernism.


Confronted with the extreme diversity of the Habsburg Monarchy and its failure to embody western European political paradigms, some historians choose to depict it as doomed to unceasing crisis and decay. Yet, the monarchy not only withstood the difficulties confronting it during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, weathering the storms of Turkish invasions, religious discord, internal dissent, and continental wars, but also thrived, introducing political, social, and economic reforms and leaving a lasting cultural legacy. The monarchy's problems were real enough, but it offered practical solutions in a part of the world unaccustomed to uniformity and largely unwilling to pursue it.

Despite enjoying less wealth and facing greater problems than other states, by the second half of the eighteenth century, the monarchy was still expanding its reach, fielded Europe's largest army, possessed a stable yet innovative government, led the way in public education, and was without peer in the world of music. By the beginning of the next century, it was poised to play a central role in reversing the military conquests of Napoleon following the French Revolution. Through a transterritorial alliance with the Catholic Church and the estates of its diverse lands, the Habsburg dynasty fostered a political and cultural allegiance during the early modern period that allowed it to outlast all other monarchies in terms of longevity and continuity. Only the nationalism of the nineteenth century would erode that allegiance, and only a world war in the twentieth would eliminate it entirely in 1918.

See also Austria ; Bohemia ; Charles V (Holy Roman Empire) ; Charles VI (Holy Roman Empire) ; Dutch Republic ; Ferdinand I (Holy Roman Empire) ; Ferdinand II (Holy Roman Empire) ; Ferdinand III (Holy Roman Empire) ; Habsburg Dynasty ; Holy Roman Empire ; Holy Roman Empire Institutions ; Hungary ; Joseph I (Holy Roman Empire) ; Joseph II (Holy Roman Empire) ; Maria Theresa (Holy Roman Empire) ; Maximilian I (Holy Roman Empire) ; Maximilian II (Holy Roman Empire) ; Netherlands, Southern ; Rudolf II (Holy Roman Empire) ; Spain .


Brunner, Otto. Land and Lordship: Structures of Governance in Medieval Austria. Translated from the 4th rev. ed. by Howard Kaminsky and James Van Horn Melton. Philadelphia, 1992.

Evans, R. J. W. The Making of the Habsburg Monarchy, 15501700: An Interpretation. Oxford, 1979.

Evans, R. J. W., and T. V. Thomas, eds. Crown, Church and Estates: Central European Politics in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. New York, 1991.

Ingrao, Charles W. The Habsburg Monarchy, 16181815. Cambridge, U.K., 1994.

Ingrao, Charles W., ed. State and Society in Early Modern Austria. West Lafayette, Ind., 1994.

Johnson, Lonnie R. Central Europe: Enemies, Neighbors, Friends. New York, 1996.

Kann, Robert A., and Zdenek V. David. The Peoples of the Eastern Habsburg Lands, 15261918. Seattle, 1984.

Louthan, Howard. The Quest for Compromise: Peacemakers in Counter-Reformation Vienna. Cambridge, U.K., 1997.

Melton, James Van Horn. Absolutism and the Eighteenth- Century Origins of Compulsory Schooling in Prussia and Austria. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1988.

Okey, Robin. The Habsburg Monarchy: From Enlightenment to Eclipse. New York, 2001.

Szabo, Franz A. J. Kaunitz and Enlightened Absolutism, 17531780. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1994.

Edmund M. Kern

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