Type of Government
The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a dual monarchy, in which two previously independent monarchic systems were unified under a single emperor who served as head of state, head of government, and leader of the military. The emperor was chosen according to a hereditary system of succession. The empire was divided into two semi-autonomous states, each maintaining a separate parliament of popularly elected leaders. The empire had a single, three-member cabinet with responsibility over joint finance, foreign affairs, and military policy. Each parliament selected a delegation of representatives to meet with the central government to determine domestic policy. The judicial system was divided between the two states, while the monarchy maintained a separate set of laws governing all subjects of the empire and enforceable through a system of imperial courts.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, monarchs of the Habsburg dynasty had governed many parts of Europe as Holy Roman emperors since the 1200s. The end of the Holy Roman Empire came in 1806 at the hands of Napoléon Bonaparte (1769–1821). Thereafter Francis II (1768–1835), the last of the Holy Roman emperors, proclaimed himself Francis I, the ruler of the Austrian Empire. After Napoléon’s defeat in 1815, Austria became one of the leading states in central Europe’s German Confederation.
The Austrian Empire included in its territories the Kingdom of Hungary, as well as present-day Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic in their entirety, and parts of Poland, Romania, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Serbia, and Montenegro. Many of the empire’s non-Austrian subjects were dissatisfied with the empire’s centralized power structure and demanded more autonomy. Francis Joseph I (Emperor Franz Josef; 1830–1916) became the Austrian emperor in 1848, after the failure of his predecessor, Ferdinand I, to deal with rebellions throughout the empire’s major cities. The most vocal rebellions included those among the Magyars, Hungary’s ruling class of aristocrats. Franz Josef skillfully pushed their demands for autonomy aside, using the Austrian army and bureaucracy as deterrents. He succeeded until Austria was lured into the Seven Weeks’ War against the German state of Prussia in 1866. After a humiliating defeat and expulsion from the German Confederation, Austria became eager to consolidate its remaining power and shore up its international image. Franz Josef began to consider the Hungarian demands for autonomy from a new perspective.
Emperor Franz Josef acquiesced to Hungarian demands for autonomy by surrendering his control over Hungary’s internal affairs. In return, he and the Magyar leadership of the Hungarian parliament drafted the Compromise of 1867, which named Franz Josef king of Hungary and the emperor of Austria and created the new Austro-Hungarian Empire. The compromise called for one army and navy, as well as common ministries of foreign affairs, war, and finance. This structure gave the new empire a united front internationally and monetarily, but each half of the empire would be in charge of its own internal affairs. The compromise also established a large and powerful nation of some sixty million people in the heart of Europe. Franz Josef sacrificed internal control over his Hungarian subjects, but gained international prestige and power with his new empire.
In exchange for their cooperation in establishing the new empire, Austrian German liberals in the Reichsrat (Imperial Council) were allowed amendments to existing law that they had been seeking. These changes granted increased freedom of speech, press, and assembly and officially recognized the equality of all nationalities and languages active in the empire. In 1879 the liberals succeeded in establishing an independent judiciary for the empire, culminating in the Reichsgericht (High Court of the German Empire).
The 1867 compromise recognized the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s two national parliaments: the Reichsrat in Austria and the Diet in Hungary. Both parliaments were bicameral—meaning they consisted of two separate chambers. Members of the upper houses were appointed and those of the lower houses were elected. Issues affecting both halves of the empire were settled through the Delegations, a smaller, separate legislative body made up of members from each parliament.
A monarch ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but both halves of the empire maintained their own prime ministers and additional cabinet ministers. One important component of the empire’s governance was never formally recognized. Just as joint parliamentary affairs were dealt with through the Delegations, the executive branch of government, the monarchy, used the Crown Council, the composition of which varied, but usually consisted of both prime ministers, the joint secretaries of war, finance, and foreign affairs, as well as a council chief of staff. The monarch could also choose additional advisers if he chose. Foreign policy and the conduct of war were determined by the monarch.
A joint customs union, a common currency and postal system, and a sharing of accounts facilitated economic and financial cooperation in the empire. These arrangements were reexamined and renegotiated every ten years.
Before the Compromise of 1867 Austria’s constitutional monarchy had established the February Patent of 1861. Intended to respond to calls for a more democratic government, it transferred power from disparate local legislatures that were controlled by the nobility to a more centralized national government. It remained in force in the Austrian part of the new empire.
Political Parties and Factions
In 1879 Francis appointed his childhood friend Count Eduard von Taaffe (1833–1985) prime minister. A shrewd politician, Taaffe appointed a coalition of Slavic, conservative, clerical, and aristocratic representatives to the government. This coalition set one nationalistic and political group against another so that none of the groups could became too powerful. Taaffe thus managed to neutralize contentious and competing nationalities within the empire and reduce the influence of troublesome Austrian German liberals. His small group of political insiders became known as the Iron Ring and remained active until 1893.
Austria’s 1873 Vienna International Exhibition was intended to showcase the material progress of the Habsburg dynasty during the rapid expansion of industry and enterprise in the late 1860s and early 1870s. These solid economic achievements were accompanied by financial speculation and reckless investment. Just after the exhibition’s opening the stock market crashed. Even though the economy eventually recovered, scores of businesses were ruined in the aftermath of what came to be called the Krach.
Progressive laws enacted in 1884 addressed important social reforms. The workday was limited to eleven hours, children younger than twelve were not allowed to work, Sunday was declared a day of rest, and compulsory insurance against sickness or accident was enacted.
In June 1914 Archduke Francis Ferdinand (1863–1914), the presumed heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia, by a Serbian patriot. The Austro-Hungarian leadership, certain that Serbia, and ultimately its ally Russia, were behind the assassination, declared war on Serbia the same day, setting into motion World War I (1914–1918).
The 1867 compromise was primarily an agreement between the Habsburg dynasty and the Magyar rulers of Hungary. Slavic peoples living in the Austrian Empire, such as the Czechs, Croats, Serbs, and others, were not consulted and remained discontented regarding the compromise and its aftermath. This lack of support from the large number of Slavic populations in the empire became one of the factors precipitating war in 1914.
In 1917 representatives of many of the nationalist groups within the nearly defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire, such as the Czechs, Poles, Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, were seeking support and recognition from the nearly victorious Allied countries. By the end of the war, these nationalists had made the continuance of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy nearly impossible. The separatist groups established national councils that served as separate governments, and in the fall of 1918 several declared themselves independent republics. Austria and Hungary each signed an armistice with the Allies on November 3, 1918, and Charles I (1887–1922), the last Austro-Hungarian emperor, relinquished his throne on November 11. His action ended the empire and the rule of the Habsburg dynasty. Within days both Austria and Hungary declared themselves separate republics.
Schierbrand, Wolf von. Austria-Hungary: The Polyglot Empire. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1917.
Sugar, Peter F., ed. A History of Hungary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.