the tangled confusion of the habsburg empire -- 10/25/16

Today's selection -- from The Austrians by Gordon Brook-Shepherd. If you read European history, you are regularly confronted with the confusing reign of the Habsburg Empire, which from its pedestrian beginnings in Austria (from the German "Osterreich" or the Eastern Kingdom) in 1278, spans eight and a half centuries and appears in locations as disparate as Spain, the Netherlands, and Burgundy. To add to this confusion, layered on top of this is the Holy Roman Empire, a loose affiliation of German-speaking provinces led for much of its history by the Habsburgs. Countries like England and France had been formed and unified by armies led by kings, which created a deeply shared history between the kings and the people. In contrast, the Habsburg Empire was the result of a series of dynastic marriages with little connection to the people, and had territories so diverse that some of its rulers almost never visited Austria itself. The Habsburg Empire famously came unravelled during World War I and its aftermath. Here, the historian Gordon Brook-Shepherd sets forward the story. The challenge, dear reader, is to see if you can follow this dynastic journey:

"[The] efforts of Rudolph [in 1453] ... to have Austria established as a separate entity from the German Reich ... could have marked the starting-point for the develop­ment of a distinct Austrian nation-state along the lines already firmly set in France and England; indeed it probably would have done, had the Austrians been ruled by any other royal house. [But] the Habsburgs, now masters of a virtually independent Austria, were also kings of Germany. ... They soon dubbed themselves sovereigns of one of the most bizarre political freaks of all time: the so-called 'Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation'. The title was only used in those parts of the realm where German was spoken, yet its very introduction presaged that dash between the national and the international which was to dog the dynasty until the end.

"The Holy Roman Empire had been famously dismissed as being 'neither holy, Roman, nor an empire'. But to tack on to it 'German Nation' centuries before any such thing as a German nation existed was to wrap one mental fog over another. Yet this was the amorphous, almost nonsensical concept which the Austrians, as loyal subjects of [the Hapsburg] dynasty, were called upon to follow and promote, for the Habsburgs remained the sovereigns of this fantasy empire right down to the beginning of the nineteenth century. ...

"The process by which the Habsburgs promoted themselves during the space of less than fifty years from a secondary European royal house into a world-wide power without drawing a sword in battle is a dizzy one. It is best, therefore, told at a dizzy pace. The Emperor Maximilian I, who ruled from 1493 to 1519, had married Maria, daughter and heiress of Duke Charles the Bold of Burgundy. At the Duke's death in 1478, all the Burgundian possessions, which included the Netherlands, passed into Habsburg hands. Maximilian's only son married in 1496 Princess Joanna of Spain, and their son Charles rounded off the link by marrying the other Iberian heiress, Isabella of Portugal. This son was the enig­matic Charles V who, when he succeeded his father in 1519, truly ruled over an empire on which the sun never set, stretching as it did from the Danube Basin across Western Europe and then over the Atlantic Ocean to the new Spanish possessions of South America. This huge extension and diffusion of power only widened the gap which separated the Habsburg dynasty from its Austrian people in the feudal heart­lands of the empire. In the thirty-eight years of his reign, Charles twice crossed the Channel to visit England, where he was known, quite simply, as 'Charles of Europe'. He constantly travelled in Italy, France, the Netherlands, Germany and, of course, Spain. But he never visited Prague or Budapest, and was only once in Vienna.

"His heritage was indeed almost too vast to contemplate and certainly too unwieldy to administer from one centre. Before withdrawing from the world to die as a monk in 1558, Charles divided up his empire, keeping the Spanish and Burgundian possessions for himself (with the imperial title during his lifetime) but handing over all the Austrian territories ... to his younger brother Ferdinand, who duly succeeded him as emperor.

"Ferdinand soon became the beneficiary of another astounding matri­monial coup planned long ago by his wily grandfather. Maximilian, that indefatigable matchmaker, had married him off in infancy to Anne, daughter of the powerful King Wladislaw of the Polish Jagellons, who at that time ruled over both Bohemia and Hungary. To double-tie the knot, the Jagellons' own son Louis had married Ferdinand's sister Maria. The crucial provision in this second marriage was that if Louis were to die without male issue, Anne and her husband would inherit all his possessions. In 1516 Louis succeeded his father as King of Bohemia and of Hungary. Ten years later he died defending the latter kingdom against the Turks, who crushed the Magyar forces in the great battle of Mohács. He left no son behind; Ferdinand accordingly claimed both

"There were two psychological effects in all this for the Austrian subjects of the Habsburgs. Hitherto they had lived in a basically Teutonic world, for the three royal houses which had provided their rulers had all been German. Now the Austrian inheritance comprised, among other newcomers, Slavs in the lands of the Bohemian Crown (which included Moravia), and more Slavs (notably the Croats) alongside the Magyars in the lands of the Hungarian Crown. The Archduke of Austria had become king over all. Though it took the Habsburgs some time to make their dual kingship fully effective (central and eastern Hungary, including Budapest, were not recaptured from the Turks until 1699, for example), the 'Casa Austria' was transformed irrevocably into a multi-national concept. Moreover, this transformation had been entirely a dynastic affair, in which the people had played no role. These vast new possessions had not been fought for with kings riding at the head of national armies, but simply accumulated at the altar. As the oft-quoted tag went, with its echoes of envy and admiration: 'Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube' ('Let others wage war; you, happy Austria, marry'). What was to prove less happy for the Austrians were the long-term consequences of a ruling house gobbling up territory in isolation from its subjects."


Gordon Brook-Shepherd


The Austrians: A Thousand-Year Odyssey


Basic Books


Copyright 1996 by Gordon Brook-Shepherd



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