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.


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.

Austria recovered from the war, and became a great power during the 18th century; a patron of European classical music and other arts.

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 France 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. The Kingdom of Hungary earned more recognition in the Compromise of 1867, styling the Empire as Austria-Hungary.

Since 1871, the monarchs of Germany styled themselves as Emperors, as well. However, World War I marked the end of all European empires: Austro-Hungary, as well as Russia, Germany and the Ottomans.

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 has the world's second oldest underground railway. The Orient Express was a legendary rail line, with much of its length through Austria-Hungary.

Except Austria and Hungary, the Empire's territory is today divided between Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Romania, Ukraine, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland.


German used to be the lingua franca of the empire and Central Europe in general, and major cities such as Prague and Budapest became "Germanized" under the empire. This ended after World War II, when 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. In addition, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was, for a time, a major patron of operas in Italian as well as German and many educated subjects of the empire whose first language was German also understood some Italian and French. German still plays some role as a second or third language in the area though, 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.



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