May 29th in German History: The Creation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire

The Symbol of Austria-Hungary.

The Austrian Empire was one of the more troubled states in 19th Century Europe. Its German-speaking lands in Austria proper were relatively stable, but the rest of its territory was fraught with varying levels of dissent and unrest. One of the more prominent territories of the Empire was Hungary, which had been conquered by Austria in the 17th century. Austria had gradually reduced the independence of Hungary over the centuries. This, however was met with resistance from the Hungarian population. The desire for self rule came to a head in 1867, when the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 was signed, reestablishing the Kingdom of Hungary and ending Austrian absolutist rule.

The Kingdoms of Austria and Hungary were once the two dominant powers in the Balkans. During the Middle Ages, the two states controlled far larger territories than they do today and together formed a bulwark against the Ottoman Empire. However, Hungary would prove unable to resist Ottoman invasion, and following the Battle of Mohacs fell under Ottoman rule. In that state it would remain until after the Second Siege of Vienna in 1683 when the Ottoman Empire was weakened to such a great extent that Austria would be able to reconquer the whole of Hungary within two decades. For a century after their conquest of Hungary, the Hapsburg monarchs ruled the Kingdom as a state separate from the rest of their territories with a constitution that limited their power. However, in 1804 the Empire of Austria was established, which brought all territories owned by the Hapsburgs into one domain. This initially had no real impact on how Hungary was ruled. This changed in 1848, when Hungary revolted against Austria. This revolution was put down with the aid of Russian troops and led to the removal of much of Hungary’s autonomy. Austria created a military dictatorship in Hungary, established the absolute power of the monarch, abolished the constitution and territorial integrity of Hungary, and weakened the Hungarian Diet. Hungary was forced to enter the Austrian customs union and adopt German as the bureaucratic language. This period of absolute rule lasted until 1866. In that year, Austria was crushed by Prussia in the Six Week’s War, losing power in Germany and much of its influence in Italy. This along with a budget crisis threatened to throw the Empire into chaos and cause its collapse. The Hungarian nobility took advantage of this chaos and arranged a compromise with Austria. The compromise made Hungary a separate kingdom ruled by the Emperor of Austria. Domestic policy would be made by the Hungarian Diet, while foreign policy would be unified. It also restored the traditional Hungarian Constitution, limiting the King’s power. Austria would directly rule half of the Empire’s lands while Hungary would administer the other half. Hungarian Ferenc Deak was one of the main supporters of the compromise, and he signed it along with Emperor Franz Joseph. It was ratified by the Hungarian Diet on May 29th, 1867.

The Great Compromise helped to delay the collapse of the Austrian Empire by transforming it into a duel monarchy of Austria and Hungary, but it did not prevent it. Hungarians were not the only nationalistic minority within the Empire. Serbs, Croatians, Bosnians, and Romanians all wanted autonomy and even full independence. Making the Hungarians more autonomous if anything only made the other nationalities resentful that they were not receiving the same treatment. Even many Hungarians were not satisfied with the compromise. Only 8% of the population would be able to vote to ratify it, resulting in deep social divides that would destabilize the kingdom. Austria-Hungary would cease to exist in 1918 as it was unable to survive the hardship and devastation of the First World War. The Compromise of 1867 would only delay the inevitable end of an Empire comprised of disparate nationalities in an era of nationalism and self-determination.

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