Europe was ruled for many centuries by the Habsburg family. They dominated Europe through a series of smart marriages and their ascent to power began with the acquisition of the Duchy of Austria through Rudolf I. He was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1273 and, after a protracted war, took control of Austria and a number of territories under the Habsburg crown.
The Habsburgs were early adopters of a ‘make love, not war’ approach to gaining territory, and Emperor Maximilian I began a policy of strategic marriages around 1500 to increase his power and possessions. The Habsburgs gained control over large parts of Southern Germany, the Netherlands, Burgundy, Hungary, southern Italy and Spain, as well as the Spanish colonies.
The Siege of Vienna, in 1529, was the first attempt by the Ottoman Empire, led by Suleiman the Magnificent, to capture the city of Vienna. The Ottoman army was 100,000 strong and attempted to tunnel under the walls of Vienna to lay siege on the city. They were unsuccessful, but military conflict continued against the Ottoman Turks for over 150 years, with the Ottomans claiming Hungary for over a century. The conflicts culminated in the Battle of Vienna, which the Ottomans eventually lost at the end of the 17th century.
Austria not only faced a threat from the Ottomans in the 16th and 17th centuries but also from the advent of Protestantism. The Reformation spread across Europe and animosity towards the Catholic Church, to which the ruling Habsburg family belonged, became widespread. The Habsburgs attempted to re-Catholicise Protestant Europe through force, which triggered the Thirty Years’ War. The war devastated Europe and permanently altered the continent’s power balance, with both France and Sweden rising as powers and Austria and the Holy Roman Empire becoming severely weakened.
When Napoleon rolled through Europe with the French army, he was focused on destroying the Austrian Habsburg-led Holy Roman Empire. Perhaps the most important battle fought within the Austrian Empire was the Battle of Austerlitz, which is considered one of Napoleon’s greatest tactical victories. He took Vienna and the defeated Holy Roman Empire dissolved in 1806, several thousand years after it began, and never reaped.
The decline of an empire
Following increased pressure from the people of Hungary to be independent, Austria became Austria-Hungary or the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1867 under Franz Josef I. He ruled for almost 68 years until his death in 1916 during WWI, which began after Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia following the assassination of the heir to the Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo in 1914. WWI Austria-Hungary received the unconditional support of Germany, who also declared war on Serbia.
During the war, a young Austrian named Adolf Hitler was enlisted in the Bavarian army. He would go on to become one of the most influential, evil and infamous men in European and world history. He desperately wanted to rejoin Germany and Austria and in 1938 the Nazis annexed Austria – known as the ‘Anschluss’ – to a mostly positive response from the Austrian people. Austria would remain a state of Germany until the end of WWII when it was divided into four zones by the victorious Allied nations.
Austria became an independent nation once more in 1955 and declared permanent neutrality, joining the UN the same year. It is now one of the 20 richest countries in the world and is governed by a conservative democratic government. Vienna consistently tops lists of the world’s most liveable cities and the country is a popular tourist destination thanks to its outdoor activities, history, culture and food.