Austria, Switzerland, and Germany

During the Middle Ages, the areas we know as Germany, Austria (except the eastern part), and Switzerland were loosely united in the Holy Roman Empire - along with smaller states such as Liechtenstein, the Low Countries, and parts of France, Italy, and Poland. The Empire had kingdoms within it as well as duchies, principalities, and other smaller units, including localities ruled by archbishops, bishops, and abbots, free Imperial cities, and the independent cities of the Hanseatic League; there were up to 300 components. The Emperor directly ruled only small parts of it and was elected by a committee of the most important rulers. There was also an imperial parliament, the Reichstag ("imperial moot," but it later became the German parliament without changing its name).

The extent of the Holy Roman Empire in 1600, superimposed on modern national boundaries:

Map created by Ssolbergj, Wikimedia Commons

The origins of Austria lie in marches (border territories) created in the early Middle Ages and given by the Emperor to rulers other than the Dukes of Bavaria to control their power. One of these was referred to in an imperial charter of 996 as Ostarrîchi, which means "eastern empire" and is the ancestor of the modern German Österreich. In 1278, Emperor Rudolf I of Habsburg defeated and killed the Czech King Ottokar II, who had briefly come to power in the Duchy of Austria and was disputing his election as Emperor, and gave it to his sons. This was the beginning of the Habsburg (or Hapsburg) monarchy; by 1363 the dynasty had gained control of the other parts of modern Austria, although it was split up by dynastic branching and only reunified in 1490. In 1438, Duke Albert V of Austria was elected Holy Roman Emperor, after which the Habsburgs had a lock on the position that was only once broken - during the War of the Austrian Succession, when several powers refused to recognize Maria Theresa. It should be noted that the Habsburgs were so committed to protecting and extending their power by dynastic marriages that they are the most prominent example of inbred genetic defect in history. The Romanov imperial dynasty of Russia famously had hemophilia, which considerably weakened male members of their line. But the Habsburgs had mandibular prognathism - a jutting lower jaw causing the "Habsburg lip" that can be seen in portraits - hereditary insanity, epilepsy, and several cases of retardation. The worst branch was the Spanish; the War of the Spanish Succession was caused by Charles II's inability to sire children, and he was barely able to care for himself. Maria Theresa's father was one of the claimants to the Spanish throne, but it passed to the Bourbons, an offshoot of Louis XIV's family allied to teh Habsburgs by marriage. Maria Theresa was actually the least inbred Habsburg for generations, but her only brother had died in infancy. The Habsburgs were devoted to Catholicism; Emperor Ferdinand II's determination to reconvert parts of the Empire that had become Protestant (not just in response to Luther, but also under the influence of Jan Hus in Hungary) both caused and prolonged the Thirty Years War (1618–1648), during which both battles and roving bands of soldiers were a constant burden on the populace. There were repeated epidemics and floods of starving refugees. Some estimates put civilian loss of life as high as 50%, and all parts of the Empire were depopulated and politically and economically weakened.

Switzerland has its origins in a successful rebellion against the Habsburgs, who had revoked the Imperial status of the three "Forest Cantons," Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden when they came to power. Previous Emperors had ruled them directly because of the strategic importance of the passes through the Alps, and the people resented the imposition of bureaucrats who levied extra taxes. The three cantons rebelled in 1291 and won two battles against the Habsburgs, enabling them to become an independent part of the Empire that was later known as the Old Swiss Confederacy. The people's resentment of cruelty by the local representatives of the Habsburgs is illustrated by the story of William Tell, whether or not it is true. The story goes that he was a crack shot with the crossbow from a village in canton Uri. The newly appointed Austrian Vogt (reeve), Hermann Gessler, set up a pole in the square of the village of Altdorf, put his hat on top iof it, and ordered everyone to doff their hats and bow as they passed it. Tell refused and was arrested. He was told that he would have to shoot an apple off his son Walter's head or they would both be executed. On 18 November 1307, he split the arrow in two with a bolt from his crossbow, but Gessler asked him why he had a second bolt in his quiver. Tell answered that if he had missed and killed his son, he would have put the second bolt in Gessler's heart. Gessler was furious and instead of releasing tell as promised, had him bound and ordered him to be transported to his castle of Küssnacht on Lake Lucerne. But a storm broke out, and Tell was able to free himself. He went to the castle and shot the tyrant dead when he arrived.

By 1353 the first three cantons had been joined by the cantons of Glarus and Zug and the city states of Lucerne, Zürich, and Berne, although Zürich was expelled in the 1440s. In the later 15th century the Swiss beat other countries' armies and provided high-quality mercenaries; in 1499 they defeated the Swabian League and in effect became independent of the Empire, although this was not legally recognized until the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. In 1506, Pope Julius II engaged the Swiss Guard, which has been the papal bodyguard ever since. During the Reformation there were inter-cantonal wars over the issue, but Switzerland was spared the disruption of the 30 Years' War because it was providing mercenaries to all sides.

In 1526, the Habsburgs had taken control of Bohemia and the part of Hungary not ruled by the Ottoman Turks. During the eighteenth century, conflicts with the Turks, the extinction of the line of the Wittelsbachs in Bavaria, continuing chafing over Protestantism, shifting alliances stemming from lingering resentment over the Maria Theresa succession, attempts by Holy Roman Emperors to curtail special liberties some regions had been given in deals by their predecessors, and plain raw ambition on everyone's parts led to repeated wars, exchanging and carving up of territories (such as Poland, which was partitioned and repartitioned, and the various bits of Italy), and exacerbated the tensions that led to the French Revolution and then Napoleon's attempt to sort everybody out under his personal rule. When the victors imposed what they considered a fair settlement at the Treaty of Vienna in 1815, Switzerland's independence and neutrality were affirmed and it got three new cantons: Valais, Neuchatel and Geneva. (Napoleon had eliminated the cantons and made it all one Helvetic Republic; in the aftermath of that the Swiss had already recognized as full cantons the previously subordinate and allied areas of Aargau, Thurgau, Grisons, St. Gallen, Vaud and Ticino.) Austria, in contrast, lost heavily. The Habsburgs lost or had to cede their holdings in the Netherlands and Italy, the French took the territories west of the Rhine away from the German states, Napoleon eliminated the ecclesiastical and Imperial parts of the Holy Roman Empire, and Francis II, after first declaring an Enpire of Austria, announced the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. The Austrians lost still more territory fighting France alone. The brilliant foreign minister Klemens von Metternich then switched tactics, marrying off the Emperor's daughter to Napoleon, then at the last minute, in 1814, threw the country to the allied side to participate in France's defeat.

In the meantime, a tide of nationalism was washing over Europe. The Treaty of Vienna was based on old ideas of distributing territories to reward allies, punish enemies, and maintain a balance of power between "spheres of influence" in order to prevent another takeover by a country like Napoleon's France. But more and more of the common people and the increasingly strong middle class were tired of being regarded like chess pieces, inspired by the success of the French Revolution to regard aristocrats as not benevolent rulers imposed by divine right but out-of-touch autocrats who involved them in unnecessary and ruinous wars, and starting to think in terms of linguistic and ethnic identity that went completely against the principles on which the 1815 redistribution of lands had been done. In 1848, Europe erupted in nationalist revolutions. In Switzerland, it was a last Protestant-Catholic conflict that led to a federal constitution that guaranteed considerable autonomy to the cantons, and since then there has been peace there. In Austria, there was a revolution that forced Metternich to resign and Emperor Ferdinand I (who was mentally handicapped) to abdicate in favor of his nephew Franz Joseph. Metternich had run a police state; now the peasants were declared free and decamped en masse to the cities, where people of different ethnicities came into constant conflict. Continuing strife with Prussia, which had emerged from the Napoleonic Wars much larger and more powerful, led to military defeat at Königgrätz in 1866 and Austria being formally excluded from Germany. To appease Hungarian nationalists, Franz Joseph made a deal with the Hungarian aristocracy and in 1867 divided the Austrian Empire into two internally independent parts, Austria-Hungary, with two capitals, Vienna and Budapest. Austria-Hungary seized Bosnia and Herzegovina from the Ottoman Empire in 1878 and annexed it in 1908; World War I was triggered when a Serbian anarchist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Franz Joseph's heir, and his wife in Sarajevo in 1914, and Austria-Hungary collapsed into smaller countries in 1918.

Germany had been sweepingly reorganized by Napoleon, reduced from hundreds to 39 states called the Confederation of the Rhine, and was then combined with Austria in the German Confederation.

Groupings within the Holy Roman Empire in 1512:

Map created by Silverhelm, Wikimedia Commons


Map created by Astrokey44, Wikimedia Commons

1812 Confederation of the Rhine:

Map created by ziegelbrenner Wikimedia Commons

German Confederation following the Treaty of Vienna:

Map created by ziegelbrenner Wikimedia Commons

This high degree of abuse at the hands of the aristocrats, plus the great degree of fragmentation of the region and resentment of high taxation and censorship, made the Germans particularly open to rebellion in 1848. In addition, they were early adopters of romanticism. Another prompt was increased contact with each other. Prussia had set up a customs union in 1818 to simplify trade between the German states and after it was expanded to all of them, it led to increased travel for business and other reasons and acted as a model for political unity. Plus the roads were finally being fixed for military reasons, and the introduction of rail made travel much easier and faster. The Grimms were collecting folktales; Karl Baedeker was writing the first guidebooks to central Europe; Deutschland über Alles was being written. Basically, Germans decided that their common language (despite deep dialectal divisions), heritage, and interests should determine what country they lived in. A surprisingly united revolutionary movement broke out, using the colors red, gold, and black and demanding a free press, free assembly, arming of the people, and a national German parliament. A parliament was organized in Frankfurt, and in addition to the change of regime in Austria, the revolutionaries forced the abdication of King Ludwig I of Bavaria in favor of his son. But the revolution largely fizzled, unable to back up its demands with enough military force. The King of Prussia was offered the position of Emperor of a united Germany but turned it down because it was offered by revolutionaries. Richard Wagner was heavily involved with the revolutionaries in Saxony and was among those who fled to Switzerland afterwards; others emigrated to the United States, particularly to Texas.

Philipp Veit, Germania:

Painting by Philipp Veit [Public domain], Wikimedia Commons

Ultimately and ironically, the goal of German unification was achieved from the top down. Prussia and Austria were meant to balance each other in the Vienna scheme of things, but this was not enough for Prussian ambitions. In 1850, Frederick William IV proposed to solve what had become known as "the German problem" with a voluntary union of all the German states except Austria, to be called the Erfurt Union, but the great powers killed the idea. Then he became ill and his brother Wilhelm became regent, and Otto von Bisnmarck was appointed Minister President and in 1862 made a speech to the Budget Committee of the Prussian Chamber of Deputies in which he stated: "The great questions of the time will not be resolved by speeches and majority decisions — that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849 — but by iron and blood." In 1862 Denmark declared it would seize the independent Duchy of Schleswig and was invaded by Prussian and Austrian troops; the Danevirke was no match for a modern army and the Danes were humiliated, and had provided Germans with a further enemy to unite against, in addition to France. Then Bismarck manipulated the Italian nationalists and the Austrians into a situation where Austria was forced to declare war on Prussia while also fighting to defend its Italian territories - and in addition the Prussians successfully intercepted and sent home troops trying to come to Austria's aid from all other German states except Saxony. Austria was defeated at Königgratz and Prussia annexed additional territories in northern Germany and set up the North German Confederation.

North German Confederation of 1867 (red) and states that subsequently joined the German Empire (yellow):

Map created by 52 Pickup, Wikimedia Commons

This was established as a military union by the Peace of Prague in 1866 and became a federation in 1867. It was a true political union and its constitution was the basis for the fully unified German Empire. That constitution gave Bismarck considerable power; he could act independent of the parliament. All the German states were included except Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden, the southern parts of the Grand Duchy of Hesse - and Austria. All the southern German states had made a secret peace treaty with the North German Confederation the day before the constitution came into force.

In 1870 France attacked Prussia (over whether a prince from a Catholic offshoot of King Wilhelm of Prussia's family, the Hohenzollerns, should be allowed to accept the throne of Spain); the German states honored their commitments and did not break ranks, and the Prussians overwhelmed the French, took an entire army captive, and imprisoned the French Emperor. The French proclaimed the Third Republic and refused to capitulate. The Prussians besieged Paris. This Franco-Prussian War provided the last excuse to unify the Germans without loss of face by rulers - against their common enemy. On 18 January 1871, in the Hall of Mirrors of the Palace of Versailles, Wilhelm was proclaimed "German Emperor" (not Emperor of Germany, because Austria was excluded, but it was the second German Empire, which is why the Nazi régime was the Third Reich, or Empire). Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden, and the remainder of Hesse joined the Empire. In the Treaty of Frankfurt, Alsace and the German-speaking part of Lorraine were joined to the Empire, and France was required to pay an indemnity calculated on a population basis as the exact equivalent of the indemnity Napoleon had imposed on Prussia in 1807, and to accept German administration of Paris and most of northern France until it was paid, with the troops to be withdrawn in stages as payments were made. The united German Empire included 25 states, three of them Hanseatic cities (Hamburg, Lübeck, and Bremen) and two of them having joined as "free states," with the understanding that they would retain some autonomy (Saxony and Bavaria).

[1. The Holy Roman Empire around year 1600 AD. image from

2. Groupings within the Holy Roman Empire in 1512 image from

3. Holy Roman Empire in 1648 image from

4. 1812 Confederation of the Rhine image from

5. German Confederation following the Treaty of Vienna image from

6. Philipp Veit, Germania image from

7. North German Confederation of 1867 image from]


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