Travel topics > Cultural attractions > Historical travel > European history > Austro-Hungarian Empire
- See also: European history
The Austro-Hungarian Empire and its predecessors (the Habsburg Monarchy, and the Austrian Empire) dominated Central Europe and the northern Balkans from the end of the Middle Ages until its collapse at the end of World War I.
The empire was ruled by the House of Habsburg, arguably Europe's mightiest dynasty. All countries within the Austro-Hungarian realm are republics today, very few people with memories from the empire are alive, and very few heirs to the Hapsburg family are left; still, many palaces and artifacts have survived to this day. And even though the Cold War has severed many ties, feelings of kinship and cooperation still and once more exist between the former parts of the empire.
For most of the Middle Ages, Central Europe was a complex patchwork of interdependent monarchies and city-states. From AD 800, and continuously from AD 962, many of them were united in the Holy Roman Empire, with the claim to succeed the ancient Roman Empire. The German word for Emperor, Kaiser, as well as the Russian equivalent czar, derives from the name "Caesar", that was pronounced rather similar to the modern German word "Kaiser" in classical Latin. Over the centuries, the Holy Roman Empire lost power to local rulers, and the Emperor became an electoral position of mostly sentimental value.
Meanwhile, the East Roman Empire survived as the Byzantine Empire, ruled from Constantinople. As the city was lost to the Ottoman Empire who changed the capital's name to Istanbul, both the Ottomans themselves and the Russian Empire claimed succession from Rome. The Ottomans and Russia came to be Austria's main rivals, though occasionally their allies.
The house of Habsburg ascended the throne of Austria in 1526, and also controlled the vast Spanish Empire. Austria annexed Hungary and other kingdoms, coming to dominate central Europe and thereby the Holy Roman Empire, with Austrian kings also being Holy Roman Emperors, the last of them being Francis II.
While the Protestant Reformation swept northern Europe, Austria remained Catholic. In the early 17th century, Protestant states revolted against the Holy Roman Empire. The conflict evolved to the Thirty Years' War, in which the Holy Roman Emperor lost all significant power outside Austria.
The Austrian kingdom became a great power in its own right, and a destination on the Grand Tour. Vienna became a centre for European classical music and other arts, boasting composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, and Schubert.
Following the 1789 French Revolution, France became Austria's main rival in the French Revolutionary Wars, and later the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon Bonaparte became Emperor of the French in May 1804 to usurp the Imperial glory. He planned to conquer more of Europe, and thereby chances to be elected as Holy Roman Emperor. Francis II styled himself Emperor of Austria two months later, to secure his title. In 1805, Napoleon defeated Austria, and forced them to cede much territory. Francis formally dissolved the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, to avoid losing the crown to Napoleon. Austria was weakened, and defeated by Napoleon again in 1812.
As much of Napoleon's army perished in a campaign against the Russian Empire, Austria joined a coalition that eventually defeated the Napoleonic Empire, and the 1815 Congress of Vienna restored the Austrian Empire as one of Europe's great powers.
Prussia led an alliance that defeated Austria in the 1866 Austro-Prussian war, and became the core state of Germany in 1871, with an emperor of their own. Austria-Hungary was no longer the dominant power in Central Europe. However, the 1870s Gründerzeit ("founders' period") brought a great economic boom as well as a long-lasting construction boom and the emergence of a highly ornamental, eclectic-historicist architectural style that is considered typical for the Habsburg lands. The most representative examples of this period are along the Vienna Ring Road, but buildings of a similar style can be found all over the former Empire.
In contrast to most other European empires, Austria-Hungary had no persistent colonies overseas. In 1778, the Empire founded settlements on the Nicobar Islands, and on Maputo Bay in Mozambique. Both were abandoned within a few years. After supporting the Chinese Empire's suppression of the Boxer Rebellion, Austria-Hungary had a concession zone in Tianjin from 1901 to 1917.
In the 19th century, particularly in the long reign of emperor Franz Joseph (1848-1916), nationalism swept Europe, and many ethnic groups requested independence, or at least more autonomy. The Kingdom of Hungary earned more recognition in the Compromise of 1867, styling the empire as Austria-Hungary. While other European countries were formed or reformed according to nationalist and democratic ideas, the empire was still based on divine right, feudalism, and royal marriages. After 1867, many institutions of the Empire were styled "imperial and royal", referring to the two crowns of Austria and Hungary, kaiserlich und königlich in German. This was usually abbreviated to "k. u. k." in Austria and "k. k." in Hungary (the butt of many jokes in military and diplomatic circles) and led to the country's nicknames "k. u. k Monarchie" or "Kakanien".
Discontent among the Slavic peoples was supported by the Russian Empire, and led up to the 1914 assassination of Franz Joseph's heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand (married to a Czech countess, he supported Slavic rights within the empire, if only to knock down the Magyars a peg) in Sarajevo, which became the igniting spark of World War I; at its time known as "The Great War". The war and the subsequent political revolts led to the fall of Austria-Hungary, as well as the Russian, German and Ottoman empires.
The empire was a forerunner in science and technology. Vienna and Prague were connected by a telegraph line as early as 1847. The Telefon Hírmondó was a broadcast service in Budapest founded in 1893, the first and most successful of its kind. Budapest arguably has the world's second oldest underground railway. The Orient Express was a legendary rail line, with much of its length through Austria-Hungary.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire was tied together by railroads and many of them survived the Cold War and the general neglect of railway infrastructure in the twentieth century or have been restored in recent times. In addition to that, there was an effort even through the years of European division to ensure a state of good repair for some roads linking Germany and other destination countries for work migrants with their former homelands to the South and East. As the Iron Curtain opened, traffic flows changed once more and the Austrian Railway, ÖBB, is slowly but surely acquiring an amount of international connections out of proportion with the size of the country, largely focused in the "k.u.k. lands" (kaiserlich und königlich, i.e. the former Austria-Hungary), Germany and Switzerland.
German used to be the lingua franca of the empire and Central Europe in general. This ended after World War II, as millions of German-speakers were expelled from the Soviet Union, Poland, Czechoslovakia and several other nations, to present-day Germany and Austria. Still, the empire was multi-ethnic, with recognition of local languages—its krone banknotes bore text in no less than eight languages in addition to German and Hungarian. During the 19th century the Hungarian half of the Empire had an even more aggressive language policy marginalizing linguistic minorities and strongly magyarizing many places, the effects of which can be seen to this day.
In addition, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was, for a time, a major patron of operas in Italian as well as German, and many of the German-speaking subjects of the empire also understood some Italian and French. German still plays some role as a second or third language in the area, but oftentimes it has been relegated to a secondary position behind English or Russian, not least because the German-language states want to avoid the appearance of cultural imperialism.
- 1 Vienna. The primary capital. Big parts of its architecture and urban design date from an era when it was supposed it would "soon" become a major imperial capital of four million or more inhabitants
- 2 Budapest. The secondary capital. One of the first cities in the world to get a subway.
- 3 Prague. The Austrian capital from 1583 to 1611.
- 4 Bratislava (Pressburg). Capital of the Hungarian Kingdom, and seat of its parliament, for most of its history.
- 5 Graz. Capital of Inner Austria, with an Old Town recognized by the UNESCO. The famous Schlossberg fortress repelled many Ottoman attacks.
- 6 Zagreb. Capital of Croatia, which was an autonomous kingdom within the Empire.
- 7 Sarajevo. The city where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, marking the beginning of the end for the Empire.
- 8 Trieste. Largest Italian city of the empire, its major port and naval base. Europe's three main cultural and linguistic regions meet here: Romance, Germanic, and Slavic.
- 9 Venice. Once the seat of the mighty Venetian Republic and the cradle of the Renaissance, Venice was only briefly part of Austria-Hungary, and some Habsburg obelisks and monuments in Venedig remain.
- 10 Kraków. The Empire's largest Polish city, and an important cultural centre.
- 11 Lviv (Lemberg). The capital of the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria, and the Empire's largest city in present-day Ukraine.
- 12 Chernivtsi (Czernowitz). The capital and university city of the formerly Austro-Hugarian region Bukovina, classic example of a strongly multi-ethnic region.
- 13 Timișoara (Temesvár). Historical capital of the Banat region which has been called a "little Vienna" for its rich Habsburg-era architecture and lifestyle
- 14 Alba Iulia (Gyulafehérvár, Karlsburg). Former capital of Transylvania. Within a large, well-preserved 18th-century citadel, its old town features a number of Habsburg-era Baroque buildings.
- 15 Novi Sad (Neoplanta). Capital of the formerly Austro-Hungarian Vojvodina, now part of Serbia.
- 16 West Bohemian Spa Triangle (Westböhmisches Bäderdreieck). Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad), Františkovy Lázně (Franzensbad) and Mariánské Lázně (Marienbad) – the Austro-Hungarian aristocracy's favorite places to relax and recover.
- 17 Habsburg (4 km southwest of Brugg). Ancestral castle of the Habsburg dynasty, in Switzerland.