Was the Habsburg Monarchy still an empire after 1867?

Every empire is unique in that they are individually moulded by both endogenous and exogenous factors, rarely having linear paths due to their universality. This was very much the case for the Habsburg Monarchy, and more so because of its linguistic diversity and permeable borders. But such universalism was also a poisoned chalice and gave the Habsburgs more challenges. The developments within and after the nineteenth century exacerbated such problems, with the Compromise of 1867 reflecting the burden this had on the Empire. For some, this was the beginning of its end. But such a conclusion is too reductionist without considering the multifaceted organism the Habsburgs Empire was; composed of the internal and external, the idea of nation vs empire, and the broader milieu that consciously and unconsciously affected its decisions that supposedly led to its end. Such decisions, both before and after 1867, may matter to distinguish the Empire’s extinction before or after the Compromise. But this may have not mattered at all, as the Empire’s demise, whatever year, may have merely been a footnote in history when considering the dialectical stages of world history. It is nevertheless worth investigating.

The Compromise was damaging for the empire’s image, but it did not hinder its pursuit for economic development and industrialisation. Its last three decades of existence had seen a large proliferation of its population. The findings of Kennedy show that, “despite considerable emigration”, the Habsburgs’ population rose by 11 million in the years between 1890 and 1914, surpassing the rates of France, Italy and Britain.[1] The rise in population is significant because industrialisation is assumed to be in tandem with it, especially when Austria-Hungary avoided the Malthusian trap through the increase of “administrative technology”.[2] Good concludes this was a success, his data showing that from the 1860s and 1870s onwards there was “no tendency toward regional divergence” due to “increased economic integration and reduced regional income inequalities”.[3] This efficiency had made the Empire’s growth rates amongst the highest in Europe, its “industrial potential” surpassing even Russia’s.[4] With the empire displaying such potential, especially when industrialisation was a prime form of exerting prestige at the time, it still had reasons to present itself as an empire, albeit one of compromise.

However, the repetitiveness of this theme continued despite the impressive economics, especially with Germany over the Balkan War. To Taylor, Germany was in “two minds” by wanting to preserve Austria-Hungary as a Great Power to mediate against Balkan nationalism as a threat, but was also tempted to support such nationalism to cordon “any new display of independence in Vienna”; an ability Germany enjoyed because of it being “the greatest of national states”.[5] Whilst the Habsburgs personally had no Balkan policy to begin with, it may have proceeded to by being “propelled” through a “firm push into war” by Germany.[6] The lack of decisiveness of the Monarchy and the influence of Germany had proven that the Habsburgs lacked the self-confidence and ambition of an imperial state, especially when the succession of independent Balkan states was “a disaster beyond remedy” for them.[7]

But the dawn of nationalism went on to be beyond a political issue alone. Jászi believed the Habsburg Monarchy was already “a defeated empire from the economic point of view” by 1913, the system itself being a “pseudo free-trade organization” and “an instrument for economic exploitation”.[8] There is truth in this despite the impressive display of its economics earlier. Kennedy discovered an “enormous disparity of wealth” geographically contrary to Good’s findings, with per capita income reaching 850 crowns in affluent Lower Austria compared to a meagre 316, 310, and 264 crowns in the more dilapidated Galicia, Bukovina, and Dalmatia respectively.[9]

Such a dichotomy was a reflection of the linguistic gap, with Germans, Magyars, and Czechs consisting of 23.39%, 19.61%, and 12.54% as the top spoken language groups against several other minor languages with distinct differences such as Ukrainian and Italian.[10] This is more clear when considering that Austria was engaging in industrial “take-off”; Hungary pursuing “agricultural improvements” and the Slavic nations still being “poverty-stricken”. [11] Hungary itself wished for the free customs market that supposedly emerged after the Dual Monarchy’s establishment for it to pursue its much needed industrialisation, only to be disappointed by the Autonomous Tariff of 1878’s “retreat from free trade principles”, fomenting further national division; especially Hungary’s Carpathian districts which were so economically backward that “men’s voices had not broken” due to their poor diets.[12]

Such schisms prove that whilst the Habsburgs had increased the wealth of its inhabitants, it was more apparent for the Austrian metropole than it was for its peripheries. The large transnational wage gap shows that the Habsburgs’ growing economic affluence was not universal, the absence of which tends to lead to the disillusionment and separation of the territories it possesses. But the Compromise itself had given the opportunity to develop the Empire rather than hinder it, thus the start of the economic decay within the Empire cannot be pertained to 1867 when it could have been its panacea.

But the rot that inflicted the Empire may have festered far before 1867. Again, this was economical, with Eddie stating that “the forces for protection were expanding their influence” before the Compromise was resorted to.[13] But the inadequacies that affected the empire’s prestige pre-1848 were more due to its financial primitiveness than its protectionist policy, with international banking houses such as the Rothschilds providing credit facilities, something Austria had a “chronic lack of”.[14] But even during this time, the Austrian economy was showing “definite signs of dynamism”.[15] What this suggests is that the Habsburgs’ general economic policy was never diminishing but slowly improving, even with or without the Compromise. As Wank noted, there was “many progressive, creative, and humane achievements” that were to be found in the economic sphere, instead the empire’s decline being more due to the “political failure of its imperial structure”.[16]

It had already been made apparent by Taylor that the Monarchy was weak both within its ranks and on the world stage after the Compromise. But this sclerosis can be seen prior 1867, especially within its individual figures. The most visible was Franz Joseph, who’s lifetime-long reign was making him an anachronism amongst the nationalist movement, a movement he believed he was “consciously above”.[17] Such intransigence did not help in preserving the empire’s legitimacy. When such attempts were made to do so through gradual liberalism by Franz Joseph, it was “under duress, and with scepticism”.[18]

Nor were his predecessors much different. To Beller, Josephinism and the Metternich System, which presented the Habsburgs as a “Enlightened state”, were obstinate and aggressive through its censorship and police intelligence system; merely trying to “provide a mask of legitimacy” that “rapidly gave way to inefficiency and backwardness”.[19] Such backwardness was represented by the Austrian military which suffered from “severe shortcomings in finances, administration, personnel, and training” and went from receiving over half of the Monarchy’s total revenue in 1817 to a smaller figure of 20% by 1848.[20] This was displayed during the Crimean War where Austria’s “effort to isolate Russia concluded by isolating Austria” and its actions being only one of diplomacy towards the British and French, this consisting of “measures approaching the character of an ultimatum”.[21] With so many strategic obligations within the European theatre through the Congress of Vienna, the Habsburgs’ lack of seriousness and aptitude towards the matter suggests too much administrative inadequacy to call itself an empire.

But despite this, the Habsburgs maintained legitimacy amongst its populace. During the 1848 Revolutions, there remained to be “a large number of Viennese” who supported Radetzky’s suppression of the Italian revolts and “cursed the Lombards and Venetians for their lack of gratitude and treachery” towards the Monarchy.[22] Nor was such loyalty exclusive to the Austrians. Peasants in Galicia during the 1846 Krakow Uprising attacked Polish nationalists because the Poles wanted to remove “the most merciful Lord from the land” that the peasants idealised the Habsburg Emperor as.[23] Palacký, despite his involvement in the Revolutions, wished only “that the imperial State be converted into a federation of nations all enjoying equal rights” under a “united Monarchy”.[24] His fidelity further showed itself through his rejection of a seat in the German parliament, claiming that the Habsburg Empire, despite his Czech identity, is “a great and important matter not only for my own nation but also for the whole of Europe” through its “preservation, integrity and consolidation”.[25] Despite its flaws, the Habsburgs were a necessity to many of its Empire’s citizens through being the fulcrum of a peaceful European order.

A mixture of the individual and geopolitical responsibilities shows the conflictions the Habsburgs had with its obligations; this best being represented through Metternich. It was the “pliant diplomacy and ingenious treaties” of Metternich that balanced not just Europe through the Vienna Congress but also the extent the Habsburgs exerted their power at.[26] It was Taylor’s view that the christening of the Habsburgs’ territories as the ‘Austrian Empire’ was a “death-bed baptism”.[27] Whilst it is assumed by the Liberal historiography that Metternich contributed to this fall from grace, his conservatism helping the Empire to become “screened from the spirit of improvement”, this was not necessarily the case.[28]

Metternich was a product of the Enlightenment and, despite his Austrian patriotism, was diverse in culture in that he was born in the Rhineland, was educated in Strasbourg and Mainz, and had not lived in Austria until he was seventeen. He therefore saw the raison d’état of Austria as a “a metaphor for the overall interest of Europe” because of the “many races and peoples and languages in a structure at once respectful of diversity.”[29] Those that beg to differ, the Liberal historiography which argues that the Metternich era “indulged a tactic of divide and rule over nationality” is, to Evans, a redundant argument because “there is very little sign” that such a strategy was pursued.[30] Such inaccurate assumptions is why the Volkerkerker analogy “greatly exaggerated” the Empire’s “bad features and overlooked its positive aspects”.[31] Metternich was resuscitating the Empire from extinguishing itself by “justifying her existence” as a state that was always “fulfilling a mission” for its citizens’ behalf.[32]

But like the Empire’s struggles in justifying itself, the ideals of Metternich were also increasingly facing an existential crisis during the nineteenth century. This was demonstrated through the emergence of Germany under Bismarck’s leadership, who had shown “that a new order could be built by conservatives’ appealing to nationalism”.[33] This was a stark contrast to Metternich’s system which “centered on dynastic legitimacy and state sovereignty within clearly defined borders”.[34] Metternich’s ideas that derived from the Enlightenment were becoming increasingly less relevant in the face of nationalism and modernity, Rapport believing that it was Metternich’s resignation during the 1848 Revolutions “which really drove forward the revolutionary impulse”.[35] The change may have been necessary when looking at the Austrian military’s growing acceptance for modernisation where it “remained steadfast and in the end saved the empire and the dynasty”.[36] Metternich himself admitted he outlived his usefulness, stating he had “nothing more to do, nothing more to discuss”.[37] But the Habsburgs had lost their top diplomat who had maintained their legitimacy within the European order. The Empire was now at a loss.

The loss of Metternich to Taylor’s eyes had therefore showed the weakness of the Empire that Metternich concealed, the Compromise being the teleological outcome of Franz Joseph as “the maker of his own ruin”.[38] But when considering the role of nationalism during this time, it was a movement beyond the Empire’s control that forced it to make concessions through the Compromise. Looking at the milieu of European politics during the nineteenth century goes to show that the Compromise, whilst significant for Austria-Hungary’s internal politics, was but a footnote for the dialectical sequence of events that occurred on the whole continent. As Kaan rightfully believed, the gradual collapse of the Empire was but “a stage in the evolution of a new, highly promising era of cultural developments”.[39]

The geographic centrality of the Habsburg Empire within Central Europe made it ever more vulnerable to such developments, with the exchange of ideas more easily transmuted. The advent of print capitalism was to proliferate how one identified themselves, which raised a serious challenge to the empire’s legitimacy. Metternich himself realised this, believing “the greatest evil—and therefore the most immediate—is the press”.[40] Such challenges can be traced as early as Maria Theresa, who was willing to grant Hungary concessions which ensured “considerable state-building activity” and “centralized the administration” within the Magyar-dominated nation; decades before Franz Joseph was even born.[41] His Compromise merely added to the dialectical process of Hungary’s growing self-consciousness.

But the proliferation of such self-consciousness was to enter unprecedented levels through the industrialisation Franz Joseph oversaw. As Gellner believed, the social conditions that came with the transition from agrarianism to industrialisation had allowed “standardized, homogenous, centrally sustained high cultures” to become “natural repositories of political legitimacy”.[42] The very same industrialisation the Habsburgs desired to pursue was to backfire on their legitimacy through a recently discovered accountability by an emerging national conscious.

Nor was this unique to the Habsburgs. Once national self-consciousness had been attained did consciousness become “lifted into universality”, becoming “universal reason, and is consciously aware of itself as reason”.[43] Russia’s policy of Russification and the Ottomans’ attempts in establishing an Ottoman identity were responses to the growing disparity between the ideas of empire and nation’s growing self-consciousness; the former being “multiethnic” and “hierarchical” whilst the latter believing in “radical egalitarianism” and possessing a “common national ‘soul’”, making the two notions “sworn enemies”.[44] As Carr believed in his theory of history, such events had made “differences of national character arising of different national backgrounds of society and education …. difficult to deny”, as the development of society and the individual “go hand in hand”.[45]

But even when the Empire had attempted to establish their own imperial identity would it also fail, especially since “Austria” as a national name had not come into existence until 1915.[46] Other empires with a more distinctive national identity would also use their efforts in vain. Russia’s attempts at Russification in Poland is one example, as a “conception of both Russianness and Polishness remained insufficiently defined” and “was not a sufficient basis for formulating a consistent nationalist program”.[47] Any attempt by the Empire to preserve themselves was futile against the inexorable changes of the political milieu in Europe. This was to be the same path for all the continental empires. The political writer Gentz recognised this as early as the Metternich era, when he concluded that “the end of the Turkish monarchy could be survived by the Austrian for but a short time”.[48] When World War I finally buried the Empire for good, it was the teleological result of the transition of empires into nations. That is the significance of the war. The Compromise of 1867, on the other hand, was merely one of many parts in the continuous procession of the age of imperialism’s decline.

It can thus be concluded that the official end point of the Habsburg Monarchy was indeed at the end of World War I; rather than citing 1867 just because it receded some of its powers over Hungary. The Compromise was only but an official recognition of the Empire’s withering influence. But the power it supposedly possessed never really existed to the extent it was perceived to have. During several stages in its last one hundred years of existence had it shown weakness. Its economic primitiveness is one symptom, consistently falling behind other nations even when it was developing. Another is its lack of a concrete foreign policy which was abundantly clear in Crimea and the Balkans, only to eventually be dictated under Germany’s growing influence. Whilst citizens had faith in the monarchy, its anachronisms and intransigence represented by Franz Joseph gradually showed its fractures. And whilst Metternich with all his efforts kept the Empire afloat, he could only do so for so long; the limitations made clear by his lamentable resignation. The Habsburgs’ inherent insecurity only made it the more vulnerable to the changing political environment across a Europe that was experiencing rapid cultural change and progress. But like Europe itself, the Habsburg Empire was a state in consistent conflict with its contradictions and lack of direction that always made it vulnerable. If one was to ever call it an empire in any part of its history, it is one defined by fragility and compromise. Only in 1867 did it become consciously aware of this.

Featured image credits: “The Graben, Vienna, Austria-Hungary, ca. 1895” by trialsanderrors is licensed under CC BY 2.0


[1] Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (London: William Collins, 2017), 277.

[2] Ester Boserup, “Environment, Population, and Technology in Primitive Societies,” Population and Development Review 2, no. 1 (1976): 21-36, 22.

[3] David F. Good, “Economic Integration and Regional Development in Austria-Hungary, 1867-1913,” in Disparities in Economic Development since the Industrial Revolution, ed. Paul Bairoch and Maurice Lévy-Leboyer (London: Macmillan, 1981), 137-150, 147.

[4] Kennedy, The Rise and Fall, 278.

[5] A.J.P. Taylor, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918 (London: Oxford University Press, 1957), 489.

[6] Ibid., 490.

[7] Ibid., 491.

[8] Oscar Jászi, The Dissolution of the Habsburg Empire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1929), 210 and 212.

[9] Kennedy, The Rise and Fall, 278.

[10] Wilhelm Winkler, “The Population of the Austrian Republic,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 98, Present Day Social and Industrial Conditions in Austria (1921): 1-6, 1.

[11] Kennedy, The Rise and Fall, 278.

[12] Scott M. Eddie, “The Terms and Patterns of Hungarian Foreign Trade, 1882-1913,” The Journal of Economic History 37, no. 2 (1977): 329-358, 332. And Norman Stone, Europe Transformed 1878-1919 (London: Fontana Press, 1985), 303.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Alan Sked, The Decline and Fall of the Habsburg Empire 1815-1918 (London: Longman, 1992), 70.

[15] David F. Good, The Economic Rise of the Habsburg Empire, 1750-1914 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 39.

[16] Solomon Wank, “Some Reflections on the Habsburg Empire and Its Legacy in the Nationalities Question,” Austrian History Yearbook 28 (1997): 131-146, 133.

[17] Stone, Europe Transformed, 314.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Steven Beller, Francis Joseph (London: Longman, 1996), 26.

[20] Gunther E. Rothenberg, “The Austrian Army in the Age of Metternich,” The Journal of Modern History 40, no. 2 (1968): 155-156.

[21] Henry Kissinger, World Order (London: Penguin Books, 2015), 73.

[22] R. John Rath, The Viennese Revolution of 1848 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1969), 150.

[23] Kai Struve, Bauern und Nation in Galizien: über Zugehörigkeit und soziale Emanzipation im 19. Jahrhundert (Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 2005), 83.

[24]Frantíšek Palacký, “Manifesto of the First Slavonic Congress to the Nations of Europe,” The Slavonic and East European Review 26, no. 67 (1948): 309-313, 311.

[25] Frantíšek Palacký, “Letter Sent by Frantíšek Palacký to Frankfurt,” The Slavonic and East European Review 26, no. 67 (1948): 303-308, 305.

[26] A.J.P. Taylor, The Habsburg Monarchy 1809-1918 (London: Penguin Books, 1988), 39.

[27] Ibid., 38.

[28] H.A.L. Fisher, A History of Europe: From the Early 18th Century to 1935, Vol II (London: Fontana, 1970), 1007.

[29] Kissinger, World Order, 75.

[30] R.J.W. Evans, “The Habsburgs and the Hungarian Problem, 1790-1848,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 39 (1989): 41-62, 59.

[31] Wank, “Some Reflections,” 132.

[32] Taylor, The Habsburg Monarchy, 39.

[33] Kissinger, World Order, 75.

[34] Eric D. Weitz, “From the Vienna to the Paris System: International Politics and the Entangled Histories of Human Rights, Forced Deportations, and Civilizing Missions,” The American Historical Review 113, no. 5 (2008): 1313–1343, 1314.

[35] Mike Rapport, 1848 Year of Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 2010), 410.

[36] Rothenberg, “The Austrian Army,” 165.

[37] Alan Palmer, Metternich: Councillor of Europe (London: Orion, 1997), 313.

[38] Taylor, The Habsburg Monarchy, 153.

[39] Robert A. Kaan, A History of the Habsburg Empire 1526-1918 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 521.

[40] Palmer, Metternich, 182.

[41] Pieter M. Judson, The Habsburg Empire: A New History (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016), 45.

[42] Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1999), 55.

[43] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, ed., The Essential Writings (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 79.

[44] Krishan Kumar, Visions of Empire: How Five Imperial Regimes Shaped the World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 20-21.

[45] E.H. Carr, What is History? (London: Penguin Books, 2018), 28-29.

[46] Stone, Europe Transformed, 305.

[47] Mikhail Dolbilov, “Russification and the Bureaucratic Mind in the Russian Empire’s Northwestern Region in the 1860s,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 5, no. 2 (2004): 245-271, 246.

[48] Taylor, The Habsburg Monarchy, 42.