The Thirty Years’ War left Germany physically and emotionally exhausted, facing a devastated economy and a depleted population. Politically, there existed no real unity because Germany existed as a region of more than 300 independent principalities that would not unite until the nineteenth century. The war decimated the Holy Roman Empire and left it virtually powerless over the German states. As emperors, the Habsburgs were out of luck; all the German-speaking provinces, including those hereditarily belonging to the Habsburgs, were in bad shape.
One of the German-speaking provinces, Austria, held by the Habsburgs, would eventually vie for superiority in eastern Europe. Austria represented the heart of Habsburg power; from here the Habsburgs sought to centralize and expand their power after the dust settled from the war. Austria faced challenges, threats from the Turks and competition from Prussia, but it carved out a niche in the European political and military landscape that remained until the twentieth century.
More Serfs and Fewer Protestants
The first challenge for the Habsburgs after the Thirty Years’ War involved shifting gears. The Habsburgs no longer held imperial power but they did hold land in eastern Europe. Ferdinand III (1608-1657) worked to centralize power in Austria, Bohemia, Styria, Moravia, parts of Croatia, and the region of the Tyrol.
Austria belonged to the Habsburgs already. Bohemia, as a result of the war, owed much allegiance to the Habsburgs. The Czechs who lived in Bohemia prior to the war were mostly Protestant. When the Protestants rebelled early in the 1600s, the Catholic and imperial forces crushed them. The emperor, who still had power then, took vast holdings from the Protestant nobility and turned the land over to Catholic nobles. In return, the nobles owed loyalty to Ferdinand and to the Habsburgs. Furthermore, the virtual elimination of Protestantism helped create a sense of religious unity; the opportunity for a split over religion had been removed. After the war, the Bohemian nobles were mostly foreign and very few were Bohemian. The Habsburgs killed two birds with one stone as they permanently secured the nobles’ loyalty and tightened the grip on Bohemia. The growing ranks of serfdom unwittingly strengthened the bond between nobles and Habsburgs. The serfs were made to work more for less compensation and the tax burden fell on the peasants; both made the nobles very happy and very loyal. Bohemia belonged to the Austrian Habsburgs.
Habsburgs After the War
Ferdinand III formed a standing army to keep domestic trouble to a minimum; with an army, Ferdinand III had no challenges from within his own borders. The Habs- burgs prepared for the next challenge, moving eastward into Hungary, which the Turks had controlled for centuries. The Islamic Ottoman Empire had competed with the Habsburgs of Austria time and again; the Ottoman Turks nearly captured Vienna in the sixteenth century.
In the late 1600s, the Turks decided to take one last stab at the Habsburgs. With financial support from the Hungarian Protestants, who enjoyed Muslim tolerance, and from the Habsburgs’ archenemy, Louis XIV, the Ottomans set their sights on Austria. They marched on Vienna in 1683 and for two months laid siege to the city. Just as the city was prepared to capitulate, reinforcements arrived and forced the Turks to retreat. As the Habsburg and allied troops battled the Turks over the following years, the Habsburgs conquered most of Hungary and Transylvania.
The Austrian holdings were growing into an Austrian Empire. The Habsburg monarch controlled three main areas that included Austria, Bohemia, and Hungary. To be sure, though, the lands of the Habsburgs were in no sense a nation. The three areas had different histories, different languages, different legal systems, and different cultures. As the Habsburgs added land, they attempted to institute a somewhat absolutist government. For example, in Hungary as in Bohemia, the Habsburgs attempted to wipe out Protestantism and promote Catholicism. This resulted in a number of revolts by the Hungarian nobles who wanted not only religious tolerance but also political freedom from the Habsburgs. Habsburg ruler Charles VI (1685-1740) ultimately compromised with Hungary. Hungarian nobles received some privileges in return for their acceptance of Habsburg rule. Tied up with affairs elsewhere in Europe, Charles had no choice.
The War on Louis
By the eighteenth century, the troublesome Louis XIV of France had been gobbling up land and upsetting the rest of Europe for years. When the king of Spain died and left the throne to the grandson of Louis XIV, the rest of Europe couldn’t stomach the idea of Louis basically inheriting Spain and all of its holdings. Everyone knew who would call all the shots if Louis’ grandson were on the throne in Spain, and Europe found itself in the War of the Spanish Succession.
For a dozen years, the Grand Alliance of the Austrians, Prussians, Dutch, and English fought Louis. When the nations finally signed the Peace of Utrecht in 1713, Louis’ grandson got the throne but had to agree not to unite the two nations under one crown. Furthermore, Louis gave away French holdings such as Newfoundland and Nova Scotia to the English, as well as the Spanish Netherlands to Austria. The timing turned out to be pretty good for Austria. By 1715, Austria held the former Spanish Netherlands, Austria, Silesia, and Bohemia, along with Sardinia and Naples in Italy.
The Pragmatic Sanction
The Habsburgs held the reins of a nice-size and growing empire, but they knew the whole thing could fall apart at any time even under their pseudo-absolutist rule. They had seen what happened elsewhere—in Spain, for example—when succession problems threatened to destroy generations of political efforts. Charles VI took the initiative to solve this problem by issuing the Pragmatic Sanction in 1713.
The Pragmatic Sanction declared that the Habsburg lands were never to be split up but rather passed to the next heir completely intact. Charles, the last of the male Habsburgs, even included a provision that allowed for a female to become heir to Habsburg holdings if necessary. Unfortunately for Charles, who spent three decades trying to sell the Pragmatic Sanction to everyone else, few others shared his enthusiasm for the idea.