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1: Early History of Austria

Introduction || 2: Charles V to Leopold II >>

The empire of Austria, as the official designation of the territories ruled by the Habsburg monarchy, dates back only to 1804, when Francis II, the last of the Holy Roman emperors, proclaimed himself emperor of Austria as Francis I. His motive in doing so was to guard against the great house of Habsburg being relegated to a position inferior to the parvenus Bonapartes, in the event of the final collapse of the Holy Roman Empire, or of the possible election of Napoleon as his own successor on the throne of Charlemagne. The title emperor of Austria, then, replaced that of "Imperator Romanorum semper Augustus" when the Holy Empire came to an end in 1806. From the first, however, it was no more than a title, which represented but ill the actual relation of the Habsburg sovereigns to their several states. Magyars and Slavs never willingly recognized a style which ignored their national rights and implied the superiority of the German elements of the monarchy; to the Germans it was a poor substitute for a title which had represented the political unity of the German race under the Holy Empire. For long after the Vienna Congress of 1814-1815 the "Kaiser" as such exercised a powerful influence over the imaginations of the German people outside the Habsburg dominions; but this was because the title was still surrounded with its ancient halo and the essential change was not at once recognized. The outcome of the long struggle with Prussia, which in 1866 finally broke the spell, and the proclamation of the German empire in 1871 left the title of emperor of Austria stripped of everything but a purely territorial significance. It had, moreover, by the compact with Hungary of 1867, ceased even fully to represent the relation of the emperor to all his dominions; and the title which had been devised to cover the whole of the Habsburg monarchy sank into the official style of the sovereign of but a half; while even within the Austrian empire proper it is resented by those peoples which, like the Bohemians, wish to obtain the same recognition of their national independence as was conceded to Hungary. In placing the account of the origin and development of the Habsburg monarchy under this heading, it is merely for the sake of convenience.

The first nucleus round which the present dominions of the house of Austria gradually accumulated was the mark which lay along the south bank of the Danube, east of the river Enns, founded about A.D. 800 as a defence for the Frankish kingdom against the Slavs. Although its total length from east to west was only about 60 km., it was associated in the popular mind with a large and almost unbroken tract of land in the east of Europe. This fact, together with the position of the mark with regard to Germany in general and to Bavaria in particular, accounts for the name Österreich (Austria) i.e. east empire or realm, a word first used in a charter of 996, where the phrase in regione vulgari nomine Ostarrichi occurs. The development of this small mark into the Austro-Hungarian monarchy was a slow and gradual process, and falls into two main divisions, which almost coincide with the periods during which the dynasties of Babenberg and Habsburg have respectively ruled the land. The energies of the house of Babenberg were chiefly spent in enlarging the area and strengthening the position of the mark itself, and when this was done the house of Habsburg set itself with remarkable perseverance and marvellous success to extend its rule over neighbouring territories. The many vicissitudes which have attended this development have not, however, altered the European position of Austria, which has remained the same for over a thousand years. Standing sentinel over the valley of the middle Danube, and barring the advance of the Slavs on Germany, Austria, whether mark, duchy or empire has always been the meeting-place of the Teuton and the Slav. It is this fact which gives it a unique interest and importance in the history of Europe, and which unites the ideas of the Germans to-day with those of Charlemagne and Otto the Great.

The southern part of the country now called Austria was inhabited before the opening of the Christian era by the Taurisci, a Celtic tribe, who were subsequently called the Norici and who were conquered by the Romans about 14 B.C. Their land was afterwards included in the provinces of Pannonia and Noricum, and under Roman rule, Vindobona, the modern Vienna, became a place of some importance. The part of the country north of the Danube was peopled by the Marcomanni and the Quadi, and both of these tribes were frequently at war with the Romans especially during the reign of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, who died at Vindobona in A.D.;. 180 when campaigning against them. Christianity and civilization obtained entrance into the land, but the increasing weakness of the Roman empire opened the country to the inroads of the barbarians, and during the period of the great migrations it was ravaged in quick succession by a number of these tribes, prominent among whom were the Huns. The lands on both banks of the river shared the same fate, due probably to the fact to which Gibbon has drawn attention, that at this period the Danube was frequently frozen over. About 590 the district was settled by the Slovenes, or Corutanes, a Slavonic people, who formed part of the kingdom of Samo, and were afterwards included in the extensive kingdom of the Avars. The Franks claimed some authority over this people, and probably some of the princes of the Slovenes had recognized this claim, but it could not be regarded as serious while the Avars were in possession of the land. In 791 Charlemagne, after he had established his authority over the Bajuvarii or Bavarians crossed the river Enns, and moved against the Avars. This attack was followed by campaigns on the part of his lieutenants, and in 805 the Avars were finally subdued, and their land incorporated with the Frankish empire. This step brought the later Austria definitely under the rule of the Franks, and during the struggle Charlemagne erected a mark, called the East Mark, to defend the eastern border of his empire. A series of margraves ruled this small district from 799 to 907, but as the Frankish empire grew weaker, the mark suffered more and more from the ravages of its eastern neighbours. During the century the Frankish supremacy vanished, and the mark was overrun by the Moravians, and then by the Magyars, or Hungarians, who destroyed the few remaining traces of Frankish influence.

A new era dawned after Otto the Great was elected German king in 936, and it is Otto rather than Charlemagne who must be regarded as the real founder of Austria. In August 955 he gained a great victory over the Magyars on the Lechfeld freed Bavaria from their presence, and refounded the East Mark for the defence of his kingdom. In 976 his son, the emperor Otto II., entrusted the government of this mark, soon to be known as Austria, to Leopold, a member of the family of Babenberg, and its administration was conducted with vigour and success. Leopold and his descendants ruled Austria until the extinction of the family in 1246, and by their skill and foresight raised the mark to an important place among the German states. Their first care was to push its eastern frontier down the Danube valley, by colonizing the lands on either side of the river, and the success of this work may be seen in the removal of their capital from Pöchlarn to Melk, then to Tulln, and finally about 1140 to Vienna. The country as far as the Leitha was subsequently incorporated with Austria, and in the other direction the district between the Enns and the Inn was added to the mark in 1156, an important date in Austrian history. Anxious to restore peace to Germany in this year, the new king, Frederick I., raised Austria to the rank of a duchy, and conferred upon it exceptional privileges. The investiture was bestowed not only upon Duke Henry but upon his second wife Theodora; in case of a failure of male heirs the duchy was to descend to females; and if the duke had no children he could nominate his successor. Controlling all the jurisdiction of the land, the duke's only duties towards the Empire were to appear at any diet held in Bavaria, and to send a contingent to the imperial army for any campaigns in the countries bordering upon Austria. In 1186 Duke Leopold I. made a treaty with Ottakar IV., duke of Styria, an arrangement which brought Styria and upper Austria to the Babenbergs in 1192, and in 1229 Duke Leopold II. purchased some lands from the bishop of Freising, and took the title of lord of Carniola. When the house of Babenberg became extinct in 1246, Austria, stretching from Passau almost to Pressburg, had the frontiers which it retains to-day, and this increase of territory had been accompanied by a corresponding increase in wealth and general prosperity. The chief reason for this prosperity was the growth of trade along the Danube, which stimulated the foundation, or the growth, of towns, and brought considerable riches to the ruler. Under the later Babenbergs Vienna was regarded as one of the most important of German cities, and it was computed that the duke was as rich as the archbishop of Cologne, or the margrave of Brandenburg, and was surpassed in this respect by only one German prince, the king of Bohemia The interests of the Austrian margraves and dukes were not confined to the acquisition of wealth either in land or chattels. Vienna became a centre of culture and learning and many religious houses were founded and endowed. The acme of the early prosperity of Austria was reached under Duke Leopold II., surnamed the Glorious, who reigned from 1194 to 1230 He gave a code of municipal law to Vienna, and rights to other towns, welcomed the Minnesingers to his brilliant court, and left to his subjects an enduring memory of valour and wisdom. Leopold and his predecessors were enabled, owing to the special position of Austria, to act practically as independent rulers. Cherishing the privilege of 1156, they made treaties with foreign kings, and arranged marriages with the great families of Europe. With full control of jurisdiction and of commerce, no great bishopric nor imperial city impeded the course of their authority, and the emperor interfered only to settle boundary disputes.

The main lines of Austrian policy under the Babenbergs were warfare with the Hungarians and other eastern neighbours, and a general attitude of loyalty towards the emperors. The story of the Hungarian wars in a monotonous record of forays, of assistance given at times to the Babenbergs by the force of the Empire, and ending in the gradual eastward advance of Austria. The traditional loyalty to the emperors, which was cemented by several marriages between the imperial house and the Babenbergs, was, however, departed from by the margrave Leopold II., and by Duke Frederick II. During the investiture struggle Leopold deserted the emperor Henry IV., who deprived him of Austria and conferred it upon Vratislav II., duke of the Bohemians. Unable to maintain his position, Vratislav was soon driven out, and in 1083 Leopold again obtained possession of the mark, and was soon reconciled with Henry. Very similar was the result of the conflict between the emperor Frederick II. and Duke Frederick II. Ignoring the privilege of 1156, the emperor claimed certain rights in Austria, and summoned the duke to his Italian diets. Frederick, who was called the Quarrelsome, had irritated both his neighbours and his subjects, and complaints of his exactions and confiscations reached the ears of the emperor. After the duke had three times refused to appear before the princes, Frederick placed him under the ban, declared the duchies of Austria and Styria to be vacant, and, aided by the king of Bohemia, the duke of Bavaria and other princes, invaded the country in 1236. He met with very slight opposition, declared the duchies to be immediately dependent upon the Empire, made Vienna an imperial city, and imposed other changes upon the constitution of Austria. After his departure, however, the duke returned, and in 1239 was in possession of his former power, while the changes made by the emperor were ignored. Continuing his career of violence and oppression, Duke Frederick was killed in battle by the Hungarians in June 1246, when the family of Babenberg became extinct.

The duchies of Austria and Styria were now claimed by the emperor Frederick II. as vacant fiefs of the Empire, and their government was entrusted to Otto II., duke of Bavaria. Frederick, however, who was in Italy, harassed and afflicted, could do little to assert the imperial authority, and his enemy, Pope Innocent IV., bestowed the two duchies upon Hermann VI., margrave of Baben, whose wife, Gertrude, was a niece of the last of the Babenbergs. Hermann was invested by the German king, William, count of Holland, but he was unable to establish his position, and law and order were quickly disappearing from the duchies. The deaths of Hermann and of the emperor in 1250, however, paved the way for a settlement. Weary of struggle and disorder, and despairing of any help from the central authority, the estates of Austria met at Trübensee in 1251, and chose Ottakar, son of Wenceslaus I., king of Bohemia, as their duke. This step was favoured by the pope, and Ottakar, eagerly accepting the offer, strengthened his position by marrying Margaret, a sister of Duke Frederick II., and in return for his investiture promised his assistance to William of Holland. Styria appears at this time to have shared the fortunes of Austria, but it was claimed by Bela IV., king of Hungary, who conquered the land, and made a treaty with Ottakar in 1254 which confirmed him in its possession. The Hungarian rule was soon resented by the Styrians, and Ottakar, who had become king of Bohemia in 1253, took advantage of this resentment, and interfered in the affairs of the duchy. A war with Hungary was the result, but on this occasion victory rested with Ottakar, and by a treaty made with Bela, in March 1261, he was recognized as duke of Styria. In 1269 Ottakar inherited the duchy of Carinthia on the death of Duke Ulrich III., and, his power having now become very great, he began to aspire to the German throne. He did something to improve the condition of the duchies by restoring order, introducing German colonist into the eastern districts, and seeking to benefit the inhabitants of the towns.

In 1273 Rudolph, count of Habsburg, became German king, and his attention soon turned to Ottakar, whose power menaced the occupant of the German throne. Finding some support in Austria, Rudolph questioned the title of the Bohemian king to the three duchies, and sought to recover the imperial lands which had been in the possession of the emperor Frederick II. Ottakar was summoned twice before the diet, the imperial court declared against him, and in July 1275 he was placed under the ban. War was the result, and in November 1276 Ottakar submitted to Rudolph, and renounced the duchies of Austria Styria and Carinthia. For some time the three duchies were administered by Rudolph in his capacity as head of the Empire, of which they formed part. Not content with this tie, however, which was personal to himself alone, the king planned to make them hereditary possessions of his family, and to transfer the headquarters of the Habsburgs from the Rhine to the Danube. Some opposition was offered to this scheme; but the perseverance of the king overcame all difficulties, and one of the most important events in European history took place on the 27th of December 1282, when Rudolph invested his sons, Rudolph and Albert, with the duchies of Austria and Styria. He retained Carinthia in his own hands until 1286, when, in return for valuable services, he bestowed it upon Meinhard IV., count of Tirol. The younger Rudolph took no part in the government of Austria and Styria, which was undertaken by Albert, until his election as German king in 1298. Albert appears to have been rather an arbitrary ruler. In 1288 he suppressed a rising of the people of Vienna, and he made the fullest use of the ducal power in asserting his real or supposed rights. At this time the principle of primogeniture was unknown in the house of Habsburg, and for many years the duchies were ruled in common by two, or even three, members of the family. After Albert became German king, his two elder sons, Rudolph and Frederick, were successively associated with him in the government, and after his death in 1308, his four younger sons shared at one time or another in the administration of Austria and Styria. In 1314 Albert's son, Frederick, was chosen German king in opposition to Louis IV., duke of Upper Bavaria, afterwards the emperor Louis IV., and Austria was weakened by the efforts of the Habsburgs to sustain Frederick in his contest with Louis, and also by the struggle carried on between another brother, Leopold, and the Swiss. A series of deaths among the Habsburgs during the first half of the 14th century left Duke Albert II. and his four sons as the only representatives of the family. Albert ruled the duchies alone from 1344 to 1356, and after this date his sons began to take part in the government. The most noteworthy of these was Duke Rudolph IV., a son-in- law of the emperor Charles IV., who showed his interest in learning by founding the university of Vienna in 1365. Rudolph's chief aim was to make Austria into an independent state, and he forged a series of privileges the purport of which was to free the duchy from all its duties towards the Empire. A sharp contest with the emperor followed this proceeding, and the Austrian duke, annoyed that Austria was not raised to the dignity of an electorate by the Golden Bull of 1356, did not shrink from a contest with Charles. In 1361, however, he abandoned his pretensions, but claimed the title of archduke, and in 1346 declared that the possession of the Habsburgs were indivisible. Meanwhile the acquisition of neighbouring territories had been steadily pressed on. In 1335 the duchy of Carinthia, and a part of Carniola, were inherited by Dukes Albert II. and Otto, and in 1363 Rudolph IV. obtained the county of Tirol. In 1364 Carniola was made into an hereditary duchy in 1374 part of Istria came under the rule of the Habsburgs in 1382 Trieste submitted voluntarily to Austria, and at various times during the century other smaller districts were added to the lands of the Habsburgs.

Rudolph IV. died childless in 1365, and in 1379 his two remaining brothers, Leopold III. and Albert III., made a division of their lands, by which Albert retained Austria proper and Carniola, and Leopold got Styria, Carinthia and Tirol. Leopold was killed in 1386 at the battle of Sempach, and Albert became guardian for his four nephews, who subsequently ruled their lands in common. The senior line which ruled in Austria was represented after the death of Duke Albert III. in 1395 by his son, Duke Albert IV., and then by his grandson, Duke Albert V., who became German king as Albert II. in 1438. Albert married Elizabeth, daughter of Sigismund, king of Hungary and Bohemia, and on the death of his father-in-law assumed these two crowns. He died in 1439, and just after his death a son was born to him, who was called Ladislaus Posthumus, and succeeded to the duchy of Austria and to the kingdoms of Hungary and Bohemia. William and Leopold, the two eldest sons of Duke Leopold III., and, with their younger brothers Ernest and Frederick, the joint rulers of Styria, Carinthia and Tirol, died early in the 15th century, and in 1406 Ernest and Frederick made a division of their lands. Ernest became duke of Styria and Carinthia, and Frederick, count of Tirol. Ernest was succeeded in 1424 by his sons, Frederick and Albert, and Frederick in 1439 by his son, Sigismund, and these three princes were reigning when King Albert II. died in 1439. Frederick, who succeeded Albert as German king, and was soon crowned emperor as Frederick III., acted as guardian for Sigismund of Tirol, who was a minor, and also became regent of Austria in consequence of the infancy of Ladislaus. His rule was a period of struggle and disorder owing partly to the feebleness of his own character, partly to the wish of his brother, Albert, to share his dignities. The Tirolese soon grew weary of his government, and in 1446 Sigismund was declared of age. The estates of Austria were equally discontented and headed an open revolt, the object of which was to remove Ladislaus from Frederick's charge and deprive the latter of the regency. The leading spirit in this movement was Ulrich Eiczing (Eitzing or von Eiczinger, d. before 1463), a low-born adventurer, ennobled by Albert II., in whose service he had accumulated vast wealth and power. In 1451 he organized an armed league, and in December, with the aid of the populace, made himself master of Vienna, whither he had summoned the estates. In March 1452 he was joined by Count Ulrich of Cilli, while the Hungarians and the powerful party of the great house of Rosenberg in Bohemia attached themselves to the league. Frederick, who had hurried back from Italy, was besieged in August in the Vienna Neustadt, and was forced to deliver Ladislaus to Count Ulrich, whose influence had meanwhile eclipsed that of Eiczing. Ladislaus now ruled nominally himself, under the tutelage of Count Ulrich. The country was, however, distracted by quarrels between the party of the high aristocracy, which recognized the count of Cilli as its chief, and that of the lesser nobles, citizens and populace, who followed Eiczing. in September 1453 the latter, by a successful émeute, succeeded in ousting Count Ulrich, and remained in power till February 1455 when the count once more entered Vienna in triumph. Ulrich of Cilli was killed before Belgrade in November 1456; a year later Ladislaus himself died (November 1457). Meanwhile Styria and Carinthia were equally unfortunate under the rule of Frederick and Albert and the death of Ladislaus led to still further complications. Austria which had been solemnly created an archduchy by the emperor Frederick in 1453, was claimed by the three remaining Habsburg princes, and lower Austria was secured by Frederick, while Albert obtained upper Austria. Both princes were unpopular, and in 1462 Frederick was attacked by the inhabitants of Vienna, and was forced to surrender lower Austria to Albert, whose spendthrift habits soon made his rule disliked. A further struggle between the brothers was prevented by Albert's death in 1463, when the estates did homage to Frederick. The emperor was soon again at issue with the Austrian nobles, and was attacked by Matthias Corvinus, king of Hungary, who drove him from Vienna in 1485. Although hampered by the inroads of the Turks, Matthias pressed on, and by 1487 was firmly of possession of Austria, Styria, and Carinthia, which seemed quite lost to the Habsburgs.

The decline in the fortunes of the family however, was to be arrested by Frederick's son, Maximilian, afterwards the emperor Maximilian I., who was the second founder of the greatness of the house of Habsburg. Like his ancestor, Rudolph, he had to conquer the lands over which his descendants were destined to rule, and by arranging a treaty of succession to the kingdoms of Hungary and Bohemia, he pointed the way to power and empire in eastern Europe. Soon after his election as king of the Romans in 1486, Maximilian attacked the Hungarians, and in 1490 he had driven them from Austria, and recovered his hereditary lands. In the same year he made an arrangement with his kinsman, Sigismund of Tirol, by which he brought this county under his rule, and when the emperor Frederick died in 1493, Maximilian united the whole of the Austrian lands under his sway. Continuing his acquisitions of territory, he inherited the possessions of the counts of Görz in 1500, added some districts to Tirol by intervening in a succession war in Bavaria, and acquired Gradisca in 1512 as the result of a struggle with Venice. He did much for the better government of the Austrian duchies. Bodies were established for executive, financial and judicial purposes, the Austrian lands constituted one of the imperial circles which were established m 1512, and in 1518 representatives of the various diets (Landtage) met at Innsbruck, a proceeding which marks the beginning of an organic unity in the Austrian lands. In these ways Maximilian proved himself a capable and energetic ruler, although his plans for making Austria into a kingdom, or an electorate, were abortive.

At the close of the middle ages the area of Austria had increased to nearly 50,000 sq. m[iles]., but its internal condition does not appear to have improved in proportion to this increase in size. The rulers of Austria lacked the prestige which attached to the electoral office, and, although five of them had held the position of German king, the four who preceded Maximilian had added little or nothing to the power and dignity of this position. The ecclesiastical organization of Austria was imperfect, so long as there was no archbishopric within its borders, and its clergy owed allegiance to foreign prelates. The work of unification which was so successfully accomplished by Maximilian was aided by two events, the progress of the Turks in South-eastern Europe, and the loss of most of the Habsburg possessions on the Rhine. The first tended to draw the separate states together for purposes of defence, and the second turned the attention of the Habsburgs to the possibilities of expansion in eastern Europe.

Introduction || 2: Charles V to Leopold II >>