In 1918, Austria-Hungary effectively disintegrated after finding itself on the losing side of World War I. So what came next?
The end of an era
As the echoes of battle died away, Austria-Hungary found itself with 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 that an armistice depended on the formal end to both the empire and the monarchy. Many lands (including Hungary itself) quietly declared independence anyway since nobody was left to stop them from doing so.
The days of Habsburg rule were finished. Done and dusted. Game over.
The last emperor (Karl I, who came to power after Emperor 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, and the Allies left him in Madeira to cool off until he passed away in 1922.
As everything collapsed 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 former Habsburg lands thought they could make it on their own.
The plan seemed like a reasonable one, except the idea of a German Austria got little support elsewhere. Nor did the would-be republic have the political or military clout to push through their 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 did indeed become 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.
When the dust 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 (more or less today’s country).
Vienna suddenly found itself at the extreme east of a new republic rather than near the centre of a venerable empire.
Another legacy of the city’s former imperial role was its large population and mix of cultures. Viennese surnames hark back to times when numerous people moved there from Bohemia and other parts of the empire.
Even today, Vienna is at least four to five times the size of any other Austrian city.
The USA, for example, has over 35 times the population of Austria, yet Vienna’s 1.9 million inhabitants would make it the fifth biggest city in the states.
(The current flag of Austria)
One meaning of Austria, then, is the modern one – the country established after the end of WWI and whose geography and political system has remained largely intact since (if we ignore the dreadful flirtation with fascism in the 1930s and 1940s).
Another use for the term Austria, however, is as the short-form for previous incarnations of the Habsburg lands (particularly the Austrian Empire version). 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 actual Austria (German: Österreich) has existed for centuries. The first written mention of this “Austria” was as far back as 996…
The Duchy of Austria
(Am Hof today, site of the 12th century palace of the first Duke 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.
With Vienna as its capital and the super location on the Danube, the duchy prospered and grew. It became an Archduchy in the 15th century.
This historical “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 for many centuries. And this is why, for example, one of the many titles attached to the prevailing Habsburg emperor was Archduke of Austria.
Interestingly, today’s modern country of Austria never existed as a single entity within any Habsburg-run empire. It’s more or less the bits left over after WWI when everyone else had claimed their territories or independence.
This inauspicious start 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.
But Austria is not the last Habsburg term that might cause you confusion. So let’s tidy up our understanding of history with a few more important Habsburg terms.