Although the ranks of the Hapsburgs included many able soldiers and sailors, most of the expansion of the family was not accomplished by conquest but by matrimonial alliances. This gave rise to the saying that, “Others make war, but thou, O happy Austria, only marry”. It may have been a slight exaggeration but for the most part this was true. Duke Albert V brought Bohemia and Hungary into the Hapsburg fold by marrying Elisabeth of Luxembourg, Emperor Maximilian I gained the Low Countries by marrying Mary of Burgundy and his son, Philip the Fair, married Joanna of Castile which ultimately brought the united Spain into the Hapsburg orbit. This finally united all the Hapsburg domains in the person of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V who was also King Carlos I of Spain. His rule stretched over countries in Eastern Europe, Austria and Germany, northern Italy, the Low Countries, Spain and from Spain across the ocean to the New World. It was this Hapsburg empire about which it was first said that ‘the sun never set’.
The Spanish Hapsburgs lost The Netherlands in a long war for independence which was also a front for the ongoing conflict between Catholics and Protestants. However, Belgium remained in Hapsburg hands and under the governorship of Infanta Isabella of Spain and Archduke Albert of Austria reached its “Golden Age” in terms of prosperity, art, religion and learning. However, after this period, Hapsburg influence in Germany, particularly northern Germany, began to decline. Still, the Hapsburg court remained world famous. Under Emperor Joseph II there was a turn toward the principles of the “Enlightenment” as well as patronage for some of the greatest musical geniuses of history, most notably Mozart and Beethoven. His policies made him extremely popular with the common people but often quite unpopular with the aristocracy and the clergy. The French Revolution had a dramatic impact on the House of Hapsburg, as it did most every great house in Europe.
The lovely tragic Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, who lost her life on the Paris guillotine was the sister of Emperor Joseph II (daughter of Empress Maria Theresa). Another sister was Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples who was displaced by the French invasion of Italy. After Napoleon Bonaparte ended the French Revolution and began his wars to dominate Europe, one of his most talented battlefield opponents was the Austrian Archduke Charles. When the Frenchman determined to make himself Emperor this brought about the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire with the Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor Francis II becoming Emperor Francis I of Austria in 1804. In fact, the Holy Roman Empire had long been a mostly nominal entity for some time prior to that. It was always little more than a confederation of minor German monarchies though under certain emperors it became more centralized and more like a formal German nation-state. However, decentralized power was an old tradition for the Hapsburgs. During their rule of Spain, a great deal of localism remained and there was not a great deal of centralization until after the Spanish Hapsburgs died out and were replaced by the French House of Bourbon. In Austria, there had not been much centralization of power under the Hapsburgs until the reign of Emperor Joseph II.
In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, the Austrian statesman Prince Metternich had played a leading role in re-drawing the map of Europe to maintain a balance of powers and uphold legitimate authority. However, as he passed from the scene a series of events worked in concert to upset that balance. Emperor Francis Joseph was a good man and a solid, stable monarch. Nonetheless, he was not immune from making mistakes and at times also faced situations in which he could only choose the lesser of two unfortunate options. Growing unrest in Hungary obliged the Emperor to agree to a dual monarchy in which power was shared between the Germans of Austria and the Magyars of Hungary, hence the Austrian Empire was replaced by the “Dual Empire” of Austria-Hungary in 1867. Politicians cut the military budget, weakening Austria at a time when innovations were changing the nature of war rapidly.
So it was that by the beginning of the XX Century Austria-Hungary was beset by problems. Romania, Serbia and Italy also longed to reclaim historic territories under Hapsburg rule. Russia also wished to block Austrian expansion into the Balkans at the expense of Slavic peoples and the division of power with Hungary caused other minorities within the Hapsburg realm to demand the same for their particular group. Nonetheless, Austria-Hungary was not, as some like to claim, a feeble patchwork doomed to inevitable collapse. In military terms, Austria-Hungary could mobilize three million troops and had some of the finest, most state-of-the-art artillery in the world. The brightest lights in art, architecture, music, medicine and other sciences still called Vienna home and industry was growing, railroads were expanding and the economic situation was strengthening. Between 1870 and 1913 the per capita GNP of Austria-Hungary grew at a higher rate than Great Britain, France of even Germany. Internal problems were a major concern, but there were many ideas for new models being considered and discussed, from changing from “dualism” to “trialism” to creating a federal “United States of Greater Austria”. Had it not been for the disaster that was the First World War the Hapsburg Empire may well have continued on, adapting when necessary, as it had for centuries.
HIRH Archduke Otto von Hapsburg was an inveterate enemy of the Nazi regime and would remain opposed to nationalist movements throughout his life. After seeing so many of the countries that would have been part of his empire fall under communist rule, the Archduke became a leading advocate of European unity and the pan-European movement. A respected scholar and statesman, in a move he later expressed regret over, the Archduke renounced his claim to the Hapsburg throne in order to be involved on the political scene and he had an illustrious career as a member of the European Parliament. Such an effort could hardly have a better champion than a member of the House of Hapsburg since there is scarcely a country in Europe the family was not associated with to some degree at some point in history. Today the cosmopolitan nature of the family continues with different members of the Hapsburg family being socially or politically involved in numerous countries of the former Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. They occupy a unique place in world history and European history in particular. Their impact on the world, over the many centuries they held power, was significant to say the very least.