Written by Travis Aaroe
The Austrian Empire was a multi-ethnic domain ruled over by the Habsburg dynasty. After the Congress of Vienna, which ended the Napoleonic Wars, the Empire stretched from Lombardy, Venetia and modern-day Austria in the west to Hungary in the east and, from Croatia in the south to Bohemia and Galicia in the north.
There was little natural unity amongst the subject peoples of the Empire. The Habsburgs either inherited these possessions in the late-Medieval and Renaissance periods, received them in treaties, or took them by force from the decaying Ottoman Empire. Austria’s Habsburg rulers had also acted as ‘Kaiser’ of the Holy Roman Empire, a loose confederation of predominantly German states, for centuries. However, this ancient role ended with the Holy Roman Empire’s dissolution after a crushing military defeat at the hands of Napoleon in 1805. Thereafter, Austria’s rulers would title themselves simply as Emperors of Austria.
As the nineteenth century wore on this somewhat awkward polity, united only by its ruling dynasty, began to look more and more anachronistic as the forces of ethnic nationalism boiled to the surface. One strand of nineteenth century nationalism was the popular movement for German unification – which had been stoked by the traumatic occupation of the country by Napoleon, and was advocated for by much of the German middle classes as well as intellectuals, such as Karl Marx and the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte.
After the Napoleonic Wars, Austria and the Kingdom of Prussia, under the Hohenzollern dynasty, stood as the two dominant powers in the new ‘German Confederation’ – an association created during the Congress of Vienna to replace the defunct Holy Roman Empire. Initially, Austria and Prussia were overtly hostile towards German nationalism, associating it with the liberal radicalism that had toppled the ancien regime in France. Furthermore, in the case of Austria, the rise of German nationalism would mean the end of the Austrian Empire, as a pan-German Empire would subsume the German-speaking portions of the Empire into the new state. For these reasons, Prussia and Austria acted to quash any outbursts of revolutionary Pan-German sentiment. For example, Prince Klemens von Metternich (Chancellor and Foreign Minister of Austria) pushed the ‘Carlsbad Decrees’ through the German Confederation’s Federal Diet in 1819, which banned Pan-German fraternities and censored nationalist publications. In the great moment of crisis for the Habsburg and Hohenzollern dynasties during the ‘Spring of Nations’ in 1848, the monarchs of Austria and Prussia each refused offers from the liberal ‘Frankfurt Parliament’ to lead a new federal German Empire, and the two monarchies cooperated to crush the pro-unification revolutionaries throughout Germany.
Despite Habsburg hostility to German nationalism, Austria was seen by most Germans as the natural leader of Germany. This was largely due to nostalgia for the old Austrian-led Holy Roman Empire. Even Prussia, Austria’s only credible rival for mastery of Germany, acted deferentially towards the Habsburg monarchy for the first half of the nineteenth century. In other words, Austria had innumerate chances to unify Germany under its rule. However, as mentioned before, a Pan-German state would split and destroy the Austrian Empire, and the radical liberalism thought to be inherent in nineteenth century nationalism terrified the conservative, aristocratic Austrian government. Hence, Austrian policy throughout the century focused on not having to choose between a German or a multi-ethnic destiny, but instead on attempting to preserve a loose, confederal Germany under its leadership while maintaining its vast non-German territories. In practise, as the century progressed these aims proved contradictory and, as a result, were not achieved.
For example, in 1834 Metternich refused to sign Austria up to the Prussian-backed Zollverein (German Customs Union) as he saw it as a force for German unification which would destroy the Austrian Empire. Austria’s non-participation in the Zollverein served to unify most of Germany’s economy under Prussian leadership, and as a result further excluded Austria from German affairs. Furthermore, exclusion from the customs union impoverished Austria by cutting off its trade with an industrialising Germany, forcing it to economically integrate with the poorer Balkan states. Hence, Austria’s attempt to stave off the forces of German unity that threatened its multi-ethnic empire cost it dearly in economic strength and influence in Germany.
Conversely, Austria was also unwilling to give up its leadership of a confederal Germany – even to save its multi-ethnic empire. Prussia, hitherto favouring anti-revolutionary partnership with Austria, began to abandon its instinctive hostility to German unity after 1848. It slowly developed an aspiration to co-opt German nationalism by creating a Prussian-led German state that would not only exclude Austria’s German lands, but also eschew constitutional liberalism in favour of the continued political dominance of the Juncker rural aristocrats. In this way, Prussia hoped to undercut and defeat liberal Pan-Germanism before it destroyed the old Hohenzollern regime. Prussia’s new advocacy of a ‘Kleindeutschland’ (‘Little Germany’) answer to the question of German unity inevitably brought it into conflict with Austria, which was still the premier power in the German Confederation. Attempts at a compromise were made by Prussia, by then under the leadership of Bismarck: in 1864 Austria was offered Prussian assistance in reconquering Lombardy from Italy in return for Prussian control over German Schleswig and Holstein, and in May 1866 Bismarck offered to partition Germany – with Prussia dominating the north and Austria the south. Austria, not willing to abdicate its role in Germany, fatefully refused these offers, and as a result an 1866 military alliance between Italy and Prussia annexed its Italian provinces and permanently excluded it from German affairs.
By the time non-Austrian Germany was unified under Prussian leadership in 1871, it was clear that the rise of German nationalism had short-circuited the old Austrian Empire. In previous centuries, the House of Habsburg had been able to straddle its German role as well as its multi-ethnic character. However, Austria’s aforementioned response to the rise of German nationalism destroyed this balance – as it excluded Austria economically from Germany and allowed Prussia to co-opt German unity for its own ends within a weak and divided German Confederation. Prussia, through its foreign policy, then severely weakened the Austrian Empire in order to eject it from German politics. The only way for Austria to preserve its German pre-eminence by defanging Prussia and joining the economically vital Zollverein would have been German unity under Austrian leadership, but such German unity would have lost it its non-German holdings and may have opened the door to political liberalism. Alternatively, it could have embraced a role as a multi-ethnic empire by ceding German pre-eminence to Prussia – and in doing so would have earned its support against enemies such as Italy, Russia and Hungarian separatists. This second option was the sincere aim of Prussian policy from about 1850 onwards. Prussia had repeatedly offered to help defend Austria’s empire in exchange for a partition of Germany, and after Austria was excluded from German affairs in 1866 it became a steadfast ally of Austria as a non-German power. In the end, the Habsburg monarchy chose neither – and thus ended the nineteenth century ejected from German politics, shorn of its Italian provinces, economically enfeebled and a junior partner to the new Prussian-dominated German Empire. Austria, a creation of the bygone age of dynasty and aristocracy, had proven no match against the forces of demotist nationalism.
Henderson, W.O, ‘The Zollverein,’ History, Vol 19, (1934)
Taylor, A.J.P, Bismarck: The Man and the Statesman, (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1955)
Taylor, A.J.P, The Course of German Histor’, (London: University Paperbacks, 1970)
Simms, Brendan, Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, 1453 to the Present, (London: Allen Lane, 2013)
Wheatcroft, Andrew, The Habsburgs: Embodying Empire, (London: Penguin, 1995)