The House of Austria

The Story of the Habsburgs

The earliest traceable ancestor of the Habsburg dynasty was a Count Guntram “the Rich”, whose name first appears in records dating from the year 952. The family name is derived from that of their original castle, the Habichtsburg (Hawk’s Castle), built around the year 1020 in what is now the Aargau Canton of northern Switzerland. The story that has been handed down in the family is that Guntram’s grandson Radbot, Count of Altenburg, one day lost his favourite hunting falcon (Habicht), and after a long search eventually found the bird near the top of the Wülpelsberg, a hill beside the river Aare. He immediately recognised the defensive potential of the strategic hilltop site, with its long-distance view in every direction, and as a result built his castle there in partnership with his brother-in-law, Wernher I, Bishop of Strasbourg.

merian_habsburg_1642_2About the year 1100 the name of the Habichtsburg, and of its owners, became shortened to the more convenient form of Habsburg, which was used throughout the family’s entire recorded history thereafter. The Habsburgs eventually lost the last of their Swiss lands (including the Habsburg castle) in the early 15th century, but their centre of interests had shifted eastwards to Austria long before. In 1273 Rudolf, Count of Habsburg, was elected German King. Five years later, after he had defeated Ottokar II, King of Bohemia, in a battle at Dürnkrut in Lower Austria on 26 August 1278, he took the Austrian lands under his own administration. Austria and its associated crown lands were ruled by Habsburgs from that date until 1918, an incredible dynastic reign of 640 years by a single family.

At the height of their power the Habsburgs ruled most of continental Europe (with the exception of France and Switzerland) from the Netherlands in the west to the Ukraine in the east, from Poland in the north to Italy and the Balkans in the south, as well as Spain and Portugal with their huge colonial empires in Africa, Latin America, the Pacific and Asia. This expansion throughout Europe was mostly achieved, not by conquest, but by a shrewd policy of dynastic marriages. In 1521 the Habsburg global empire was divided into Spanish and Austrian halves.

During almost six and a half centuries of Habsburg rule the dynasty produced no fewer than 18 emperors of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (from Friedrich III in 1452 to Franz II in 1806, when the Empire came to an end) and of Austria (from Franz I in 1804 to Karl I in 1918) as well as innumerable kings, princes, dukes, archdukes, counts and other rulers of their far-flung imperial lands.

As with every other empire in history, though, its zenith marked the start of a decline. The Spanish Habsburg line died out in the year 1700. The Austrian line continued to rule the Holy Roman Empire (founded by Emperor Charlemagne a millennium earlier in the year 800). However, when Napoleon’s French armies were overrunning Europe at the start of the 19th century, Emperor Franz II in 1806 declared the Holy Roman Empire to be at an end. In 1804 he had already declared himself Franz I, Emperor of Austria.

When his grandson, the 18-year-old Archduke Franz Josef, became Emperor of Austria in 1848, the “Year of Revolutions” throughout Europe, Habsburg Austria was still one of the five European great powers, second in size only to Russia. But then the rising Kingdom of Prussia under its “Iron Chancellor”, Otto von Bismarck, expelled Austria from the leadership of the German-speaking world after a victory over the Austrian northern army at Königgrätz in 1866. In 1871, after another military victory, over France, Bismarck proclaimed the second German Empire, this time under Prussian rule.

In 1867, after Königgrätz, the Hungarians forced a division of the Habsburg empire into Austrian and Hungarian halves, both having equal status under the Crown. Franz Josef ruled over what was now the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy as Emperor of Austria and also as King of Hungary. This remained the situation until 1918.

After the sensational suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf in 1889, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian thrones was Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Emperor’s nephew. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 by Serbian nationalists led to Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia – signed by Franz Josef at his desk in the Imperial Villa in Bad Ischl - and to the escalation of the resulting hostilities into the First World War.

The very last Habsburg ruler was the young Archduke Karl, grandson of Franz Josef’s brother Karl Ludwig. Karl succeeded to the thrones of Austria-Hungary when Franz Josef died on 21 November 1916 after a reign of 68 years. (He did not, however, inherit the Imperial Villa in Bad Ischl, which remains to this day in the possession of Franz Josef’s and Elisabeth’s direct heirs.) Karl made strenuous efforts to halt the slaughter on the battlefronts, but his advances were rejected by all the other combatants and he was finally powerless to stop the disintegration of the Habsburg Monarchy into a number of independent states in November 1918. Its autonomous German-speaking crown lands united to form the present Federal Republic of Austria.

After his brief reign of two years Karl died heartbroken in exile on the island of Madeira in 1922. His eldest son, Crown Prince Otto, as Dr. Otto von Habsburg, was one of the most prominent opponents of the Nazi regime and played a leading role for decades in the movement for European integration. His retirement from the European Parliament in 1999 ended more than 700 years of continuous Habsburg involvement in the highest European affairs of state.