06/08 – The Birth of Austria-Hungary

Emperor Franz Joseph I attending a Hungarian cultural fair towards the end of the 19th century. (Wikimedia Commons)

On this day in 1867, the Austro-Hungarian Compromise (or Ausgleich/Kiegyezés) was negotiated by leaders from both countries. The agreement bound Austria and Hungary – two states of the former Holy Roman Empire – together; they were governed by one Habsburg Emperor who served as the king of the newly-unified countries. The arrangement was known as the Dual Monarchy, and it was doomed from the very start.

In 1848, Hungary had tried to secure its independence, but a joint Austrian-Russian military force violently suppressed the rebellion. For the next 18 years, Hungary was subjected to harsh Austrian dominance and martial law. By the 1860s, however, Austria was in a precarious position after losing out during the Austro-Prussian War and the new German Empire posed a significant military threat. Facing increasing pressure from Hungarian nationalists, the decision was made by the Habsburgs to unify the two countries and, hopefully, carve out a larger space in the European balance of power. In return for accepting the supremacy of Emperor Franz Joseph I as the legitimate Austro-Hungarian ruler, Hungarian nationalists Ferenc Deák and Gyula Andrássy gained a series of concessions from the Habsburgs that prioritized Hungarian rights over the other ethnic groups in the country.

Although large, Austria-Hungary was incredibly divided. Modeled after the United States, the country’s various ethnic groups were simply incapable of co-existing thanks to a series of Magyar-supremacist policies and external pressures. (Medium)

The Compromise ended up satisfying almost no one. Ethnic Hungarians resented the Habsburg domination of their country, while the Austrians felt the Hungarians had been granted too much clout in their government. Other ethnic groups like the Czechoslovaks and Romanians, for their part, felt left behind by efforts to promote Magyar (Hungarian) culture in the schools. As the German Empire and other European states developed into incredibly strong powers in the years leading up to WWI, the Austro-Hungarian Empire struggled to keep up; by 1914, it was essentially a client state of Germany, squeezed between increasingly-dominant superpowers. Near the end of WWI, disgruntled armies from Hungary’s ethnic groups mutinied on Italy’s battlefields and factory workers went on strike. By 1918, internal pressures – as well as strong encouragement from the United States government, intent on promoting minority rights within Europe in line with president Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points agenda – effectively put the empire out of its misery and the various ethnic groups scattered to the winds. The Dual Monarchy, although an interesting experiment, was simply never unified enough to face the pressures applied by its powerful neighbours.

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