In 1918, Austria-Hungary effectively disintegrated after finding itself on the losing side of World War I.
There was no money, no effective army, growing republican sentiments in Vienna, and a host of Czechs, Slovaks and others demanding their independence.
The victors of WWI also made it clear than an armistice depended on the formal end to both the empire and the monarchy. Many lands (including Hungary) quietly declared independence anyway since there was nobody to stop them from doing so.
The days of Habsburg rule were over. Done and dusted. Game over.
The last emperor (Karl I, who came to power after Franz Joseph’s death in 1916) relinquished rule without ever formally abdicating, but was never able to return to power. He tried a couple of times, failed miserably, and was dumped in Madeira by the Allies to cool off until his death in 1922.
So what came next?
In 1918, as everything was collapsing around them, the German-speaking parts of Austria-Hungary declared themselves a democratic republic called German Austria.
The goal was to eventually join Germany, since none of those German-speaking Habsburg lands thought they could make it on their own.
This was all very admirable, except the idea of a German Austria got little support elsewhere and it didn’t have the political or military clout to push through its agenda.
The treaty eventually signed with WWI’s victors in 1919 saw bits of the nascent German Austria handed over to Italy, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia. What was left became a new republic, but only after agreeing to:
- Drop the German part from its name
- Give up any claims to join a greater Germany
- Stand in the corner until they had thought very hard about what they’d done (possibly)
And so German Austria never got off the ground, instead becoming what we think of today as Austria.
When the dust had settled at the end of 1919, all that was left of the great Habsburg empire was a small central European country called the Republic of Austria.
Once at the centre-west of the Habsburg lands, Vienna found itself at the extreme east of the new republic. Another legacy of its imperial role was the population size – even today, Vienna is still around four to five times the size of the next-biggest Austrian city.
So one meaning of Austria is the modern one – the country established after the end of WWI and whose geography and political system has remained more or less intact since (if we ignore the dreadful flirtation with fascism in the 1930s and 1940s).
Another use, however, is as the short-form for previous incarnations of the Habsburg empire, particularly the Austrian Empire version. So in 1813, people might have talked about an alliance with Austria and meant the Austrian Empire.
People also referred to Austria to largely mean the traditional Habsburg hereditary lands or the western part of the empire (as opposed to Hungary).
And, just to add to the potential confusion, an Austria (German: Österreich) has actually existed for centuries. The first written mention of “Austria” was as far back as 996.
The Duchy of Austria
The small Duchy of Austria was formally established in 1156 as a consolation prize for Duke Henry II for not getting Bavaria: the medieval equivalent of a swimming certificate or a packet of gummy bears for coming second. However, with Vienna as its capital and the super location on the Danube, the duchy (and its rulers) prospered and grew.
This actual “Austria” expanded, shrunk, split, renamed and reformed repeatedly in the ebb and flow of politics, wars and split inheritances. If you want to retain your sanity, don’t even try to follow its progress through time.
It’s enough to know that a “real” Austria was also a geographical and political entity.
Interestingly, today’s Austria never existed as a single entity within any Habsburg-run empire. It’s more or less the bits that were left over when everyone else had claimed their territories or independence.
This makes Austria’s modern success quite astonishing – a cobbled-together nation rising from the ashes of two world wars to today’s prosperity, with Vienna regularly coming top of global quality of living rankings.