European History

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Austria-Hungary 1870-1914

This document was written by Stephen Tonge. I am most grateful to have his kind permission to include it on the web site.

The most likely essay on Austria-Hungary will deal with the question of nationalism within the Empire. These notes deal with this issue. There is information on Foreign policy that is also important especially in understanding the outbreak of World War One.

Austria-Hungary was a multi-national empire created by the Ausgleich or compromise of 1867. Before 1867 the Empire had been dominated by the Austrian Germans. After defeat in the Seven Weeks War the Germans were forced to share power with the other major group in the Empire, the Hungarians.

The Ausgleich placed the Hungarians (Magyars) on an equal footing with the Germans. Each half of the empire had its own government and control of internal affairs in that half. There were three common ministries: war, finance and foreign relations.

It was called the "Dual Monarchy". The Emperor of Austria was also King of Hungary. The Emperor from 1848 until 1916 was Francis Joseph I from the Hapsburg family, the traditional rulers of Austria. Francis Joseph's personal life was very tragic. His brother had been shot during a revolt in Mexico in 1867 (where he had been Emperor). His only son and heir, Rudolf, committed suicide at Mayerling in a lover's pact in 1889. His wife Elizabeth was assassinated in 1898. His heir and nephew Francis Ferdinand was assassinated at Sarajevo in 1914.

The arrangement of the Dual Monarchy worked well until 1918 although there were tensions between the two countries. For example 1903 and 1906 there was a serious row over Hungarian demands for increased control over Hungarian units of the army. They wanted to replace German as the language of command in these regiments.

The major factors that kept the Empire together were:

  1. loyalty to the Emperor: Francis Joseph was personally very popular throughout the empire. He was multi-lingual and spoke nearly all the languages of the Empire.
  2. the Catholic religion: - 90% of the population of the Austrian half of the Empire were Catholic and 60% of the Hungarian half were.
  3. the civil service and the army, both of which were dominated by Germans.
  4. mutual suspicion among the subject peoples.

The main ethnic groups in Austria-Hungary

Germans 24% * Croats 5%
Magyars (Hungarians) 20% *Serbs 4%
*Czechs 13% *Slovaks 4%
*Poles 10% *Slovenes 3%
*Ruthenians (Ukranians) 8% Italians 3%.
Rumanians 6% * These peoples are Slavic

The single most important issue facing the Empire was nationalism. This took the form of demands for political and cultural equality for all the different national groups in the Empire. The response of the Germans and Hungarians to these demands was very different.


In the Austrian half of the Empire, the power of parliament was restricted by the fact that the government was responsible to the Emperor. He also had control of foreign affairs. The parliament was elected on a limited franchise.

The Austrians made attempts to give their subject nationalities a share in the government of their half of the empire. The peoples controlled by the Austrians were the Poles (who received better treatment than in either Russia or Germany), the Czechs, the Slovenes, the Ruthenians and the Italians.

The problem for the government was that when it introduced reforms to improve minority language or cultural rights, it drew opposition from the Germans and vice versa. This made reform very difficult. There was also a movement among many Germans that wanted to see the creation of a greater Germany.

The major cause of difficulty for the Austrian half of the empire was relations between the Czechs and the Germans in Bohemia. The industrialised and prosperous Czechs resented German domination, e.g. in the area of language. They hoped to see their position elevated to equality with that of the Germans and the Hungarians. They demanded the creation of a Triple Monarchy.
The Prime Minister from 1879 until 1893 was Count Eduard Taaffe (of Irish descent). He ruled with support from a coalition of German, Polish and Czech Catholics and landowners. This was called the “Iron Ring”.

Taaffe’s government improved linguistic and cultural equality between the Czechs and Germans in Bohemia. However while successful in the short-term, his reforms caused outrage among the Germans who saw their position of political supremacy being undermined. Nationalist rivalry between the Czechs and the Germans became intense.

Count Badeni, a Polish landowner (Prime Minister from1895 until 1897) introduced a reform proposing that every civil servant in Bohemia had to be fluent in German and Czech. Whereas most educated Czechs (and the other subject nationalities) could speak German, very few Germans could speak Czech (or any other language). This measure caused outrage, demonstrations and riots among Germans all over Austria. Badeni was forced out of office. In 1913 the constitution of Bohemia was suspended amid renewed inter-ethnic tension.

There was also rivalry between Slovenes and Germans in Styria and Carniola. A dispute over the funding of Slovene language classes in a predominantly German town led to the resignation of the Prime Minister in 1895. Many Italians wished to join with Italy especially in the town of Trieste which was one of the largest cities in the Empire.

Universal male suffrage was introduced in the Austrian half of the empire in 1907 partly as a result of pressure from the growing Social Democratic Party. The Emperor hoped that extending the right to vote would increase support for parties that supported the Empire and weaken nationalist parties.


In the Hungarian half the Magyars monopolised political power more fully than the Germans in Austria. Nationalities in Hungary- Romanians, Serbs, and Slovaks- were forced to endure a policy of Magyarisation. The Hungarian language was made compulsory in government, education, the law and the railways. Teachers were liable to be dismissed if their pupils did not know Maygar.

Nearly all towns and villages were given Hungarian names even in areas where there were few Hungarians. Over 90% of official posts were reserved for Hungarians.

The Hungarian nobility controlled the Parliament in Budapest. Out of 400 members of Parliament in 1913, only 18 were non-Magyar. Tensions were particularly strong between the Hungarians and the Croats.

By the turn of the 20th Century a further source of concern for the Empire was the growth of south Slav nationalism among the Slovenes, Croats and especially the Serbs. This movement was called Yugoslvism. The growth of Serbian power in the Balkans had encouraged this movement. Many hoped for South Slav unity with Serbia while others hoped for greater political control within the monarchy.

This movement and the growth of Serbia was seen by both the Hungarians and Austrians as the major threat to the unity of the Empire. It was agreed that Serbian power had to be destroyed. When Archduke Francis Ferdinand was shot in Sarajevo in 1914 by a Serb, this was the pretext needed to crush Serbia. This unleashed World War I and the eventual ending of the Empire.

For all the tension between the different nationalities the destruction of the empire was not seriously wanted by any of the major national groups before 1914. Imperial rule was seen as a protection for many against a worse oppression. Historians debate whether the empire would have collapsed without defeat in World War I. However the inability of the Empire to solve its ethnic problems meant it was too weak to survive defeat in war.

Foreign Policy

Main Aims

A power in decline since her defeat at the hands of Prussia in 1866. In most European crises before 1914 Russia and Austria were to be found on opposite sides. German-Austrian relations were close particularly after 1905. However Austria's relations with the other member of the Triple Alliance, Italy were poor. This was because of the presence of an Italian minority in the Austrian Empire (Trento, Istria and Trieste)

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11 November, 2013