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History of Austria

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Early Middle Ages and Babenberg Austria

The Great Migration of the Slavs in the dawn of the spread of the Avars in the 7th Century saw the Slavs settling in the Alps with Celts and Romans, who established the region of Karantania, which included the larger part of the eastern and central territory of what is now Austria. The Germanic people of the Bavarians had grown until the beginning of 7th Century in the west of Austria and southern Bavaria. The suppression of the Alemans, and other Rhaeto-Romanic tribes, forced them to relocate to the mountains.

Karantania, attacked by the Avars, was conquered by Bavaria in AD 745. During the following years, Bavarian settlers spread further down the Danube and up the Alps, resulting in today’s German-speaking Austria. Later, the Carolingian Franks ruled over the Bavarians, when it was Duchy of the Roman Empire. Charlemagne then won the country over Duke Tassilo III, after which the Magyars invaded and conquered most of it.

After the victory of Emperor Otto the Great over the Magyars in AD 955, new order was established in the territories of today’s Austria. After the revolt of Henry II, the duke of Bavaria, the land (marchia Orientalis, eastern march) became the main part of Austria and was ruled by Leopold of Babenberg in AD 976. Appointed by a warlord, a special dux (leader, duke) ruled over the Marches, a title which had different meanings in the Early Middle Ages. In Lumbardi-speaking countries, the title was changed to the German Margravei (Markgraf, Count of the Mark). The first archeological remnant found bearing the name ‘Austria’ (Ostarrîchi, a 10th-century usage for marchia Orientalis; Ostmark in modern German) was in Babenberg March.

In the 12th Century, The first duke of Austria increased the dynasty’s power by obtaining the Privilegium Minus from Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa, which lifted Austria to a duchy status and granted privileges and reduced obligations to the Empire. In 1186, the Babenberg tribe also received the Duchy of Styria through the Georgenberg Pact, when, during the reign of Leopold VI (1198–1230), the Babenberg dukes became one of the most significant ruling families in the region. The son of Leopold VI, Frederick II, was slain in the middle of the 13th Century, thus putting an end to the line of monarchs and resulting in an interregnum (kingless state) which extended to several decades with atrocities and restless social order. Bohemia’s Otakar III was the first to bring order to the duchies of Austria, Styria and Carinthia. His successful reign was ceased when his army was defeated at Dürnkrut by Rudolf of Habsburg, who began a long dynasty in 1278.


Habsburg Dynasty

In the troubled times following the Babenbergs’ dynasty, when Austria was also under the Czech king Otakar the Second, the Habsburgs came into power, reigning for 640 years. The German Hapsburgs began to add more territories to the Duchy of Austria (Habsburg-Austrian hereditary lands), including many new provinces, such as Carinthia, Carinola and Tyrol. Afterwards, there were many highs and lows in Austrian history. During the rule of Rudolf IV, his sons Albert III and Leopold III divided between themselves the duchy with the Treaty of Neuberg in the second half of the 14th Century. Albert took what is known today as Austria and Leopold took the then-added territories. In the following generations, further splits took place, dividing the territory into smaller realms. Some of the lines of the monarchic family went extinct.

With marital mergers and losses by splitting, the Hapsburg’s hereditary lands became an enormous empire. The Hapsburg’s part in the 1593–1606 Thirteen Years’ War (Long War, Ottoman wars) stopped the expansion of the Turks to the mainland of Europe. When the Reformation came, Austria, Bohemia, Hungary and the other hereditary lands were affected. Lutheranism was tolerated, as whole provinces were converted. However, the Hapsburg kings remained Catholic. The Archduke Ferdinand, the ruler of Styria, Carinthia and Carniola, who was also educated by Jesuits, began to oppress heresy in his provinces. Ferdinand II sought to re-Catholicise all the hereditary lands, but Hungary never completely converted.

The most significant battles in the war with the Turks took place in the reign of Leopold II during the second half of the 17th and beginning of the 18th Centuries, one of the longest reigns of a monarch. The empire was expanding to what is today Belgium, as well to the duchy of Milan, Naples, Sardinia, and later to Sicily. The reign of Charles VI relinquished some territories and expanded the Austrian monarchy, but it also led to unsuccessful wars which led to Austria losing not only Belgrade but also important border territories. Charles married Elisabeth, the oldest daughter of Louis Rudolph, the duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg. When Charles died, his only surviving children were his daughters Maria Theresa and Maria Anna. The War of the Austrian Succession then followed, which involved almost all of Europe’s powers, mainly because the law prohibited Maria Theresa to succeed to the Habsburg throne, which required inheritance by a man. However, the 1713 Pragmatic Sanction ensured Maria Theresa’s succession as Queen of Hungary and Bohemia, and Archduchess of Austria. Charles VII was elected Holy Roman Emperor, but later Maria’s husband Francis I of Lorraine (Grand Duke of Tuscany) was proclaimed Holy Roman Emperor, which continued the Habsburg reign.

The breaking of peace came in the First Silesian War (1740–1742) by King Frederick of Prussia, who attacked Silesia. Many others also began to exploit the weakness of the country, but Francis I managed to restore peace. Following the war, the Austrians were fatigued in the midst of a crisis in Europe, with many forces claiming different territories. However, relations between Austria and Russia began to improve. Joseph II and Leopold II were brothers but both had unsuccessful reigns (1780–1792) after the death of their mother Maria Theresa. Leopold, brother to the French queen Maria Antoinette, experienced the French Revolution and befriended Prussia and Poland to stop the Turks. He was survived by 16 children, of which the oldest of his eight sons was Emperor Francis II. Upon Leopold’s death, the French wasted no time in declaring war on the young emperor.


The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars (1792-1814)

Austria struggled during the French Revolution. It lost a war to France and was neglected in the Second Partition of Poland, when the 1790 Polish-Prussian Pact was signed. The French had occupied the Low Countries and persuaded neutral Britain, the Dutch Republic and Spain into the War of the First Coalition. However, the Austrian Netherlands were given to the Austrians. Poland continued to be separated, and at the third official separation, Austria gained crucial territories. All of Europe was in ripe condition for dictators and influential monarchs, including the young general Napoleon Bonaparte, who marched through the Alps and into Vienna, promising lands for the Austrians.

When Bonaparte proclaimed himself emperor of the French in 1804, Francis I saw the writing on the wall for the old Empire and decided to take the titles of Emperor of Austria and Holy Roman Emperor. Napoleon continued to conquer and annex lands, such as Italy, Genoa and Parma. The European states realised Napoleon’s threat and the War of the Third Coalition began. However, Napoleon defeated the coalition and Austria was forced to give up many territories, such as Tyrol, Bavaria, Baden and Wurttember. Yet, Salzburg was annexed to Austria.

In the following three years, Austria, ruled by Philipp Stadion, tried to balance peace with France. However, the overthrow of the Spanish Bourbons in 1808 deeply disturbed the Hapsburgs, who went to war out of desperation in 1809, without allies on the continent. Stadion’s attempts to generate uprisings in Germany were aborted, and the Russians strengthened their bonds with France. Napoleon suffered his first battle defeat in a decade in the 1809 Battle of Aspern-Essling. The same year witnessed the Treaty of Schönbrunn, which forced Austria to give up Salzburg to Bavaria, some of which was in Poland, close to Russia, as well as its territory on the Adriatic, including much of Carinthia and Styria.

The Austrian minister of foreign affairs Klemens von Metternich wanted to establish a pro-French policy. The Austrian king’s daughter married Napoleon, and Austria contributed troops to Bonaparte’s invasion of Russia in 1812. However, Napoleon suffered a great defeat to Russia, which resulted in Prussia’s retreat to the Russian side in the beginning of 19th Century. Metternich then began to shift his policy, seeking peace with France and its continental enemies. Napoleon, however, did not desire compromise and was finally defeated at Waterloo.


The 19th Century

Under the rule of Klemens von Metternich (1773–1859), the Empire was ushered into a time of censorship and harsh social order maintained by the police, between 1815 and 1848, during the Biedermaier period (named after a fictional character portrayed as a ‘common man’), or Vormärz (Pre-March) period. Both liberalism and nationalism had their influence in the state, which developed into the Revolutions of 1848. Metternich and Emperor Ferdinand I were forced to abdicate. Separatist movements, especially in Hungary and Lombardy, arose but were suppressed by the military. Industrialisation and subsequent migration sprung into the larger cities and regions of Bohemia, Lower Austria, Vienna and Upper Styria. Social insecurity and ethnic tension led to a mass nationalist movement. The joined forces of France and Sardinia led to the defeat and subsequent loss of Tuscany and Lombardy, which were given to the Kingdom of Sardinia, whose aim was to establish an Italian country.

Prussia managed to banish Austria from Germany in the war of 1886, when the industrialised state of Austria-Hungary was established. However, parliament had difficulties operating because of the many ethnic groups and tension, even while the period still held the name Gründerzeit, defining the economic upswing in the mid-19th Century. In the second half of 19th Century, Austria-Hungary invaded Bosnia and the new country of Herzegovina, one of the first to free itself from the Ottoman Empire. The assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo, triggered the beginning of the First World War, led by all the colonised countries or empires.

Following the debacle of Austria-Hungary in the First World War, the Empire disintegrated. The nationalist movement had played its role, with German Austria now insisting on nationalistic rights, supported by their name The First Republic of German Austria. The Austrian parliament wanted unification with Germany, but it was feared that Austria could not be economically stable. What’s more, France and Italy rejected the idea of a large German state. Austria would be autonomous for 20 years, so as to witness its development. After the war, Austria did not pay reparations, as it was thought to be an insolvent country. In 1925, Austria’s currency was changed from the krone to schilling, due to inflation. Austria now has a democratic, political stratum, with a pluralist system of both left- and right-wing parties.


After World War II

Austria was under the occupation of the Allies from 1945 until 1955. After World War II, Germany was divided into two zones, whereas Austria, though an independent state again, was divided into four zones, as well as Vienna, representing the four Allies of Russia, America, France and Britain. Austria took part in the ‘economic miracle’ of the Cold War, and most of the 20th Century, with the aid of the Marshall Plan, though this period was full of violent political conflict. The tolerance of the first republic had been completely forgotten and replaced by a strict, democratic second republic.

The Austrian State Treaty established the country as a sovereign state in 1955. The country was proclaimed and recognised as being ‘neutral’ by other countries. The political system adopted a Proporz doctrine, or coalition, which came from the need of a balanced consensual governance, when Austria wanted to rebuild after the destruction of the Second World War. Proporz assured that political positions were split evenly between members of the Socialist (SPÖ) and Conservative (ÖVP) parties. Interest group representations (workers, farmers, businesspeople) with mandatory membership grew to significant importance and were consulted in the legislative process. The consensus systems and Proporz shared equal power between 1966 and 1983, when non-coalition governments existed.

In recent years, Austria’s policies have been characterised by stability and economic growth. It joined the European Union (EU) in 1995 and entered the Eurozone in 1999, adopting the euro currency union. It was decided, too, that the SPÖ and ÖVP parties would form a coalition, with SPÖ leader Alfred Gusenbauer as the Chancellor of Austria.


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