A History of Austria - Part VIII

1700 - 1800: Baroque Peak, Glory & Enlightenment

So Karl VI was the last male Habsburg. For this reason, he established contracts with other European powers, in particular Austria′s rising rival Prussia, to accept a female heir. He set up a treaty that is considered to be the first constitution-like declaration, the "Pragmatic Sanction". After his death in 1740, his daughter Maria Theresia followed him on the throne and ruled Austria during a period of 40 years, now called "enlightened absolutism".

Empress Maria Theresia is often seen as the 'Mother of the Nation' in Austria

Empress Maria Theresia and her husband Stephan von Lothringen supported science and art, modernised the administration and centralised it in Vienna, she formalised the rights of the Austrian monarch, established a legal basis for the Austrian-Hungarian dualism, modernised the military, fought some wars against Prussia and established a compulsory education for all children. In brief: Maria Theresia became a mother of the nation similar to Queen Victoria in Britain or Catherine the Great in Russia.

Her son (later Emperor) Joseph II supported his mother′s efforts as a prince regent from 1765. Did you see the movie "Amadeus" about the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart? Do you remember the emperor in the movie? That was Joseph II. Similar to his mother, he is still thought of very kindly by Austrians, as he continued to steadily modernise and stabilise the country. He dissolved many monasteries (unless they were active in schooling, hospitals or other things he considered "useful") and thereby prompted the pope to travel to Vienna to ask him to stop this policy.

This was quite a journey for the old Pope and must have been very humiliating, as it is the reverse of the medieval encounter of Canossa, where the German Emperor asked forgiveness from the Pope. In the Vatican Libraries in Rome, there is a fresco that depicts the encounter of the Pope with Joseph II. I never understood why such a unflattering moment was displayed at the heart of papal power. In any case, Austria was at a cultural and political power-peak under the rule of Karl VI, Maria Theresia and Joseph II.

French Revolution & Napoleonic Wars in Austria

Joseph II was succeeded by his younger brother Leopold II. In 1792, the eyes of the European nobility suddenly moved to Paris: The French Revolution started and seeded a revolutionary movement soon to rock Europe. Austria and Prussia wanted to send troops to support the French king, but things got chaotic in France and out of the blue, Leopold II died. His successor Franz II did not care too much about France, but more about his own neck and violently fought all revolutionary ideas of freedom, equality and brotherhood in Austria.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is the most outstanding composer of the 'Viennese Classic' period

He was supported by his chancellor Metternich. They established a secret police, censored media and fought the romantic ideas of "Sturm und Drang", sovereignty of nations and democracy. This is understandable, as they hit on everything the Habsburgs stood for: Multi-ethnic empires, Monarchy and the old order. At this time, Vienna was despite of the declining power of the Habsburgs still a cultural centre: one of the World′s biggest cities, home to musical brilliance of Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and later Brahms, full of splendid museums and architecture. Don′t mistake the fading political power as representative for the cultural and intellectual life!

After the French Revolution, Austria and Salzburg got involved with the Napolenic Wars. Salzburg was quickly conquered by France′s ally Bavaria and secularised. Austria′s Franz II stripped off the crown of the Holy Roman Empire of German Nation and declared it for ended in 1806.

Emperor Franz I of Austria screwed the Holy Roman Empire of German Nation and started his own Empire

At the same time, he made Austria an Empire and became Franz I, Emperor of Austria (formally known as Franz II, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire). Confusing? Nothing compared to what should follow. Austria lost the war against Napoleon and Franz′ daughter Marie Louise got married to Napoleon in 1810. The German principalities, hit hard by the wars, had to form a union and support France in its war against Russia as the so-called "Rheinbund" ("Rhine Union").

The war on Russia was a disaster for France and it′s allies: Ten thousands of soldiers from all over Europe died on the way to Moscow, causing Austria, Prussia and Russia to form a coalition to fight Napoleon. In the "Battle of the Nations" (what a name, we clearly are in the age of Romanticism) in Leipzig in 1813, Napoleon got smashed. The stirred up Europe needed to be sorted out, and the kings and emperors of many nations joint their sorting efforts in the "Vienna Congress" in 1814.

Forming a New Europe: The Vienna Congress 1814

The Vienna Congress was a major event, uniting pretty much every power on Europe for lengthy negotiations. Austria lost its Swabian possessions, but gained Salzburg (which was a mess: after the Bavarians had sacked the little principality and the salt mines were not lucrative anymore, there was little left of its earlier wealth) and Habsburg family members ruled various counties in central Italy. Otherwise, there was little change for Austria.

Prince Metternich was the villain of early 19th century Austria

The German Principalities formed a union called "Bund Deutscher Länder" under the chair of Austria. In 1815, Napoleon returned from exile and was finally beaten again in Waterloo. Prussia, Austria and Russia formed a strategic alliance. The following years were dominated by anxious absolutism; the new Austrian Emperor Ferdinand I, who was either an idiot or epileptic (some people also say neither nor, just a little eccentric) left the rule mostly with Chancellor Metternich.

Censorship, secret services and the suppression of the growing nationalism were at the top of his agenda. Culturally, the Viennese withdrew to family life, romantic literature and hidden criticism - a period known as "Biedermeier".

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Further Reading

"Austrian History in less than 1000 words"

"A Jewish History of Austria"

A Complete List of all Austrian Monarchs