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  Countries: Austria Historical Overview

By Marechal

Austrian Town Center

The state of Austria grew by leaps and bounds over the accumulation of three hundred years of war and peace. It began as a medieval kingdom with close ties to the Holy Roman Empire. As a long parade of rulers left there individual marks on the history of Austria, the kingdom grew to a small empire. Its domains included the Netherlands, several north Italian states, Hungary, Bohemia, and a dose of smaller German principalities--at one time Spain was under Austrian rule (via a Habsburg monarch). The Habsburg dynasty, however, did not produce many leaders of exceptional quality, military or political for that matter. There was no Austrian Marlborough or French Louis XIV. The Austrian Maria Theresa stands out from the crowd, though. She was an able leader of the empire and a strong woman. She introduced many programs and administrative reforms during her reign.

During the early 1500s, and later on, Austria also suffered the disadvantage of being a land-locked nation. While Spain was off conquering the New World and amassing a fortune through it's gold and silver trade with there new colonial empire, Austria was forced to seek out domains in central and eastern Europe, namely Italy and the Balkans. England and France and Portugal all joined in the building of colonial empires, vast trading monopolies were established, and raw materials were shipped into those European ports.

Austria faced its fair share of wars and the evils therein. No less than a dozen separate wars had been launched against the Ottoman Turks by the close of the eighteenth century. The Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) played a role in Austrian lands and culture. All the various wars of succession drew Austria in. Austria was actively involved in the partitioning of Poland, effectively eliminating Poland as an independent state by 1793. Austria fought several wars in northern Italy, mostly against the French incursions there. It was Austria who repeatedly challenged Frederick the Great of Prussia and his elite armies. It was Austria who faced off against the French Republic in the late 1790s and was dealt a considerable blow by the young Napoleon Bonaparte in Italy. The Austrian empire had definitely seen enough of war by the end of the Age of Napoleon (1800-1815). Unfortunately, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries proved to be equally plagued with warfare and Austria's unlucky involvements in them.

In the early 1500s most of Austria's population was Roman Catholic. However, Protestantism in its many forms, caught on fast in the domains of the empire. It was the emperor Charles V (of Austria and the Holy Roman Empire) who condemned Martin Luther at Worms and had him banished from Germany. Many of the monarchs of the sixteenth century Austria fought Protestantism (namely in the form of Lutheranism) with laws or guns, whichever proved more convenient. The population, however, continued to accept Protestantism and by the time of Maria Theresa, the times for wars over religion were all but over. The Habsburg family as a whole was nominally Catholic. The Spanish line of the Habsburgs was an especially devoted Catholic line. The Counter-Reformation that followed in reaction to the Reformation was largely unsuccessful in reconverting the German peasantry of the empire back to Catholicism.

Austrian Stable

As most European armies evolved during the time span of 1500 to 1800, so did the Austrian armies. Most armies were made up of a majority of mercenary troops with local levees enjoined with them. The armies of the early sixteenth century were small, but expensive and cumbersome. The early artillery of the day was unreliable, heavy, and inaccurate. Muskets had yet to evolve any accuracy or efficiency on the levels of the Wars of Napoleon. Cavalry was armored from head to toe in heavy plates and armor. Pike men were used until the turn of the eighteenth century (even then, we see pike units in the War for American Independence). War was a slow, expensive process until the beginning of the eighteenth century when such leaders as Marlborough, the Marshal de Saxe, and Frederick the Great breathed new life into it. Mercenaries disappeared (although certain units could be contracted out, as were the Hessian units to England during the War for American Independence), armies became national forces, armor began to disappear; muskets became a standard infantry weapon. Cavalry became lighter and more mobile. Artillery became more powerful and accurate. For the most part, the Austrian army was maintained at appropriate levels with decent equipment and standard tactics. The army's size proved too small during Maria Theresa's reign, but by the time of the French Revolution, the army had been increased and reformed.

On the diplomatic front, Austria made several changes in its policies. During the 1500s France was perceived as the enemy of Austria and the Bourbons the natural rivals to the Habsburgs. During Maria Theresa's reign, the mid-1700s, Austria allied itself with France against the ambitions of Prussia and England (who had been a traditional ally of Austria). By the dawn of the French Revolution, however, Austria switched sides again, allying itself with Prussia and England against the French Republic. During the Wars of Napoleon, it was Austria, England, and Prussia against France. By the 1860s, Prussia again became the enemy of Austria with Bismarck in power.

For three hundred years, Austria evolved, constantly adding and subtracting domains and territories of names innumerable. It had been involved in every major war and had survived relatively well off. It had seen its share of mediocre rulers and not-so-bad kings. The people embraced the Reformation and Austria eventually abolished serfdom and freed the peasants from the old feudalistic system. It had centralized the government and made decent progress in internal reforms. Austria became and Austria remained a powerful and influential state in Continental politics and history for over a hundred years after the end of the eighteenth century.

Related Links:
» Austrian Building Gallery


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