In this lesson, we explore the rise of the Austrian state in the second half of the 17th and first half of the 18th centuries. Austrian expansion and government centralization turned it into one of Europe’s foremost powers by 1740.
Rise of Austria
The saying ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ is just as true in history as it is in your everyday affairs.
Sometimes, even when it seems like all is lost, new opportunities can arise from the ashes, which are even more fortuitous than the previous circumstances permitted.Such a scenario was certainly the case for the Hapsburg family in Austria in the mid-17th century. During this time, the imperial throne that the Austrians had traditionally held – the title of Holy Roman Emperor – lost much of its influence. In response, Austria centralized power at home, becoming more powerful and influential as an individual state than it had been as part of the Holy Roman Empire.
The Peace of Westphalia
The Hapsburg family controlled the election of the Holy Roman Emperor for the entirety of the 17th century and, most importantly, during the Thirty Years’ War.
During the War, the Hapsburgs, under the direction of Ferdinand II, attempted to expand the power of the Holy Roman Emperor at the expense of the increasingly sovereign German states. In addition, as a fervently Catholic state, Austria tried to impose religious uniformity on the entire Empire.Unfortunately, these efforts failed, and as part of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the Hapsburg Emperor, Ferdinand III, was forced to grant the German states even more latitude in self-governance and allow each German state to choose whether it would observe Catholicism or Protestantism as its official state religion.However, all was not lost; although the Emperorship the Hapsburgs held lost most of what little power had remained in the position, the Austrians had consolidated their control over neighboring territories in Central Europe.
In 1648, Austria had firm control over the neighboring principalities of Styria, Moravia, Bohemia, Silesia, Tyrol, Carinthia, and parts of Hungary.
Under Leopold I
This was the territory Leopold I inherited in 1657 after his father’s death. Despite subversive attempts by French officials, Leopold was also elected Holy Roman Emperor the following year. Leopold was a cultured and well-educated man of only 18 years when he inherited the imperial throne. Though the young king may have lacked experience, he held strong beliefs concerning the growth of state power. Leopold set about improving the power of the Austrian monarchy, especially expanding central Austrian control over the neighboring territories it held, often by sending German-speaking officials to govern the regions in Austria’s name.
Furthermore, Leopold was a devout Catholic who believed in religious uniformity throughout his lands. For example, he forced Catholicism upon the state of Bohemia, who had initially fought on the Protestant side of the Thirty Years’ War. The price of governing the province and paying for the installation of Catholicism was also placed on the provinces, and the heavy taxes Bohemians were forced to pay provoked further unrest in the 1680s – rebellions Leopold ruthlessly quashed.
Control of Hungary
While Bohemia certainly was an expensive thorn in the side of the Austrian throne, a far more important obstacle was the territory it held in Hungary, which bordered the Ottoman Empire. The peace Leopold had brokered with the Ottoman Empire in 1664 had returned Northwestern Hungary (often termed ‘Royal Hungary’) to Austrian control. The Hungarian nobility was largely Protestant, and they resisted Leopold’s heavy-handed imposition of Catholicism upon the Hungarian people. A revolt in 1671 was put down, while a further revolt in 1678 provoked Leopold to make peace and concede religious toleration to the Hungarian nobility in order to better secure stability on Austria’s border with the burgeoning Ottoman Empire.
Ottoman Wars ; Expansion
This assumed need for security against the Ottoman threat proved well-founded, as the Ottoman Empire invaded Leopold’s Austria in 1683. Making quick inroads into Hapsburg land, the Ottomans soon began besieging the Austrian capital, Vienna. The siege of Vienna was broken only when a relieving force of Saxons and Poles arrived, routed the Ottoman forces, and sent them fleeing in disarray.The battle not only saved Vienna, but marked a major turning point in history. The Ottomans’ siege of Vienna was the furthest into Europe the Ottoman Empire ever reached. Moreover, the Ottomans tasted defeat again and again in the ensuing battles against a ‘Holy League’ made up of Austria, Russia, Poland, and Venice, created at the behest of Pope Innocent XI.Austria stood to gain from the decline of Ottoman influence in the Balkan region, and decisive Holy League victories led to the Ottomans ceding much of their Balkan territory to the Holy League states in the Treaty of Carlowitz in 1699.
Austria received large portions of Hungary, Croatia, Transylvania, and Slovenia in return for peace, and the utter decimation of the Ottoman forces eliminated the biggest threat to Austrian regional superiority.
With the Ottoman threat quashed, Leopold turned his eyes westward. When Charles II of Spain died without an heir in 1700, France and Austria both favored different candidates for the throne with loose familial relations to Charles II. Although Charles II had left the throne to the French claimant in his will, Austria chose to fight on, gaining close allies in England and the Dutch Republic, all hoping to curb French influence and ensure the balance of power in Europe did not tip toward France.As a result, Leopold’s Austrian forces, commanded by the brilliant Prince Eugene of Savoy, invaded the French-held Duchy of Milan in 1701.
The war outlasted Leopold, who died in 1705, and his son, Joseph I, continued the war. Though France was on the back foot – fighting on its own soil – when Joseph himself died in 1711, Austria’s allies bowed out of the fighting when Leopold’s other son, Charles VI, inherited the Austrian throne. Charles VI and Austria continued to fight France to a stalemate until it signed the Treaty of Rastatt in 1714. Though Austria recognized the French claimant to the Spanish throne, it made important territorial gains as a result of the conflict, gaining the Italian principalities of Naples, Milan, Mantua, and Sardinia, checking French eastward expansion into Italy.
Additionally, Austria gained control of the Spanish Netherlands (what has become modern-day Belgium).
Austria Under Charles VI
Charles VI proved nearly as ambitious and successful as his father. After making peace with France in 1714, he fought a successful war against the Ottomans from 1716 to 1718, gaining what remained of Hungary and parts of Serbia. Utilizing his newly acquired ports on the Atlantic, he created the successful trading company, the Ostend Company, in 1722.
Despite its profitability, Charles closed the company in 1731 in an agreement with Britain and the Netherlands, which secured his most personally important life achievement, securing the succession of his daughter, Maria Theresa, to the Austrian throne if his male children died. This agreement proved necessary because Maria Theresa was Charles’ sole heir upon his death in 1740. Though her throne was initially contested by several surrounding powers, sparking the War of the Austrian Succession, Maria Theresa successfully defended her right to the Austrian throne.
Austria’s progression in the 92 years in between the Peace of Westphalia and the accession of Maria Theresa is one of the more remarkable success stories of early modern Europe. Despite the loss of the influence of the Hapsburg-controlled imperial throne, Hapsburg focus pivoted back home under Leopold. The government in Austria was strengthened and control of its surrounding territories was also solidified.
Additionally, war with the Ottomans in the 1680s and 1690s proved wildly successful, bringing large amounts of Balkan territory under Austrian control. Austria expanded westward as well, into Italy and the Low Countries at the expense of another key European power, France. Austrian success and expansion in this time period set the stage for its clash with the other growing power to emerge from the Holy Roman Empire, Prussia, in the second half of the 18th century.
Studying this lesson could help you to:
- Name the players in the almost 100 years of wars involving Austria
- Discuss the ebb and flow of land expansion during this time
- Follow the monarchy changes over the century
- Understand the need for Austria to centralize its power for the Hapsburgs
- Analyze the accession of Maria Theresa to the Austrian throne