The Habsburg Heart of Europe

The Ethnic and Religious Nature of Austro-Hungary

Irmgard Hein Ellingson

Presented at the Danube Swabian Conference at Mt. Angel, Oregon, September 2011

Es war einmal, once upon a time, there was Kakania, a world in which everything began with the letter K.

Its central institutions were kaiserlich und königlich (k. u. k.) notes Robert Mislil in his novel Der Mann Ohne Eigenschaften (The Man Without Qualities). Those of the Austrian part of this empire were kaiserlich königlich (k. k.) but those of the Hungarian part were, in German, königliche ungarische (k. u. or k. ung.) In Hungarian, or more correctly Magyar (pronounced Módjor), they were identified as Magyar királyi (M. kir.) One called it Österreich in German conversation. It was Austria in English speech and Austro-Hungary in writing.

Some view it as a small-scale United Europe held together by the super-structure of its ruling Habsburg monarchy. Other consider it as a feudal relic, an authoritarian bureaucracy. In many ways, the Habsburg Empire was a dynastic accident brought together by marriage, death and family fortune, not won through conquests and settlement like the British empire. This dynastic empire was put together by marriage more than anything, and it revolved around the history of a single family: the Austrian branch of the Habsburg royal family – and one must note that the name is sometimes spelled Hapsburg but never in official use.

In modern terms, the empire included Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, much of what we called Yugoslavia including all of Croatia and Slovenia as well as parts of Serbia, art of Romania, and parts of Italy at various times.

Over time, the empire came to have a certain common high culture and a common aristocratic ruling class. It acquired common institutions of state, and to some extent gained benefits from being a single economic space. But there was never any geographic, economic, religious,  or political logic for a great community located in east central Europe.

To some extent, it was born in 1526, when the Czech and the Hungarian crowns were united whit the head of the Habsburg dynasty, who already ruled over the Austrian duchies.  That was when the empire was born, and it was basically by chance, by dynastic accident.

The Habsburgs regarded the empire as their personal patrimony. Especially during the reign of Francis I from 1792 to 1835, authority was increasingly personalized and centralized, and various institutions were deprived of much of their autonomy.

Despite the early steps to democratization, the Habsburg Empire was not developing a unique kind of federalism that might have prevented nationalist fragmentation as is occasionally claimed. I was not evolving into an “eastern Switzerland” an was not an early model for a modern European Union, although there are people who believe that it was. In point of fact, it entered World War I to defend national inequality and to preserve an authoritarian structure of society. It lost.

Aber es war doch einmal; once upon a time such an empire did exist. Who were the people within its boundaries? What factors defined them and definitively shaped their personal and group identities?

The People of Europe’s Heart

The Holy Roman Empire was the major political entity in the heart of Europe between 1500 and 1806. A more realistic term, however, is the Austro-German Habsburg Empire, which draws upon its geographical location and political realities.

This paper focuses on the Habsburg Empire as it existed from 1814-1918, which includes the Austrian Empire beginning in 1814 and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or the Dual Monarchy, after 1867. It held a common high culture and a common aristocratic ruling class with common state institutions in one economic space.

Nationality, citizenship and suffrage rights, language of instruction and service, and religion shaped identities and relationships for the people of the empire. Each posed unique challenges in its historical context and each continues to challenge family history research.

1. Nationality, or the more contemporary term “ethnic group”

The term ethnicity is comparatively recent: its first dictionary appearance was in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1972, as cited in N. Glazer’s Ethnicity: Theory and Experience (Harvard: Harvard University Press 1976. Many scholars stress that the meaning of this new term is still not clear. It could mean kinship, group solidarity and common culture. An ethnic group  has been defined as: A collectivity within a larger society having real or putative common ancestry, memories of a shard historical past, and a cultural focus on one or more symbolic elements defined as the epitome of their peoplehood.

The earlier term nationalism has been defined as “an idea that fills a man’s brain and heart with new thoughts and new sentiments, and drives him to translate his consciousness into deeds of organized action.” It is theorized that the growth of nationalism is the process of integration of the masses of the people into a common politicized unit. Therefore nationalism presupposes the fact or at least the idea of a centralized form of government.

Until about 1970s, the term nationality was used in the same sense that we now use the word ethnicity. Some defined nationality in political terms. Others referred to ethnicity in more culturally, social oriented ways. In the mid to late nineteenth century, nationality came to be seen as the primary phenomenon-giving rise to the state.   Increasing numbers of people in the nineteenth century identified with a nation and in turn, the phenomenon called nationalism emerged.

An empire attempts to crate a large single community consisting of diverse, mingled people. This was true in the Habsburg Empire. No consciousness of a common so-called  “Austrian” nationality across the empire existed although at least two German-speaking communities, the Germans and the Jews, were scattered across a great deal of the empire.

One must recall that the vast majority of the population in the eastern parts of the empire consisted of enserfed peasants who provided their landlords with five or even six days of labour per week and a proportion of their agricultural produce in exchange for the use of tiny plots of ground. Well into the nineteenth century, many of these peasants simply identified themselves as tutejszy, locals, or “people form here”.  The term Nationalisten, or indigenous peoples, is typically used for them in population estimates and censuses dating from the time of Austrian annexation of these lands until the mid-nineteenth century.

In its last 60 years and within the context of modernization, the Austrian half of the Habsburg Empire was compelled to address to the sort of ethnic nationalist conflicts, which became frequent in the modern world.

No legal constraints on movement existed within the empire so one problem was the massive movement of rural populations into towns.  The consequences were immediate in this region where Germans traditionally lived in the towns and Slavs and non-Germans lived in the countryside. Hordes of often very poor – and, in terms of Christina society, culturally very alien – Galician Jews, for instance, poured into Vienna.

The Austrian legal system and Austrian police, however, did not allow racial pogroms like those in Russia or the lynch mob terrorism such as that found in the United States. In this regard, the state, its judiciary and the police were effective in imposing at least peaceful inter-ethnic relations.

After the 1860s, the empire sought to guarantee not only individual civil rights but also collective rights as the right uo use their own language, for children to be educated in their native tongue, and for equal access to jobs. Clearly it tried to define the state’s role in effectively managing a multi-ethnic community in the process of modernization.

Within a traditional society such as the Ottoman Empire, cultural autonomy was allowed so that religious communities could basically run themselves as long as  they preserved order and paid taxes.  It was more difficult to do that in the Habsburg Empire, especially when the state began to play a much larger, more organized role in society. The battles between nationalities over jobs, education and welfare become much fiercer.

2. Citizenship, including Frondienst (corvée or robot) and suffrage

The mid-sixteenth-century Counter-Reformation disrupted regional economics so that people were put under pressure to convert to Catholicism to transmigrate. Examples include Jews as well as Protestants in mountain valleys of Carinthia, Styria, Lower Austria, and areas of  “liberated” Hungary. In areas “liberated” from Ottoman rule between 1683 and 1699, local populations often sympathized with the Austrian side.

Cities suffered from heavy taxation; many had not recovered from the damage caused by the Thirty Years War. Agriculture was sluggish in most parts of the empire. In the newly conquered territories, many farmsteads were deserted and some remained deserted even in Bohemia and Moravia as late as the 1680s.  The tax burden upon the peasants increased as the wars required the estates to provide larger cotributions.

In addition, the nobles often demanded that the peasants supply them with excessive amounts of mandatory, unpaid labour called Frondienst (also robot or corvée) for as much as two or three days per week. Peasants were also required to furnish their lords with a Zehent, or a ten-percent tithe of corps produced. Peasants had little incentive to produce and mediocre harvests resulted.

Imperial patents issued to protect the peasants against excessive demands for corvée labour, remained largely ineffective until the mid-nineteenth century as the nobility prevented any interference in what they regarded their affairs.

The nobility was the most prospering segment of the Austrian economy. Many of their estates were large, with thousands of peasants. Among their privileges was comparatively low taxation. Furthermore, an estate owner might also draw a generous salary in royal service, state administration, and/or in the army.

A modern concept of citizenship with some understanding of the right to vote is a fairly recent innovation. Robert A. Kann notes in A History of the Habsburg Empire 1526-1918, page 424ff, that “… After direct but not equal franchise was introduced in 1873, the  deputies were no longer delegates of the diets but elected by the voters as members of parliament. Still, they represented four very unequal social curias – large estate owners, chambers of commerce and trade, towns, and rural communities.

Membership in these curias depended on landed property or tax contributions with a minimum of then guilders annually. This eliminated practically all urban and rural daily wage earners and a sizable part of the small peasants and craftsmen even though the property qualifications were lowered from the to five guilders in 1882.

This, of course, challenged little, but from here on the question of electoral reforms tending in the direction of general, equal, male franchise came more to the attention of the public. In 1896 a new, fifth, curia of voters was added to the existing four. This fifth curia was based on the principle of general franchise, curbed, however, by the fact that a number of voters in other curias obtained an extra vote in the fifth curia.

“… Actually the representation of the relatively privileged national grou0ps in parliament was never as disproportionately high as the parliamentary composition in regard to national wealth. The leading German position in Austria rested less on inordinate parliamentary strength than on an economically privileged status anchored in various educational and social advantages…”

By 1900, Austria was almost unique in granting equal political and civil rights to the male multi-ethnic populations within its territory. It had democratically elected local communal governments, semi-democratically elected provincial assemblies and a parliament in Vienna that was elected by universal suffrage beginning in 1907.

3. Languages, with reference to school instruction and military service

The dominant ethnic group in each half of the Empire constituted a minority in the area which it controlled: Germans numbered only some 36% of Cisleithania’s population, and Magyars comprised slightly under a half of Hungary’s.

Language constituted one of the mot contentious issues in Austro-Hungarian politics. Sorting out the languages of government and of instruction was difficult and divisive. Each minority wanted to ensure the widest possibility for education in its own language as well as in the dominant languages of Hungarian and German.

Beginning in the 177s, Empress Maria Theresa gradually placed the entire education system under state supervision. Schools were standardized, and the education of teachers and school curricula regulated by the state. The emphasis shifted from Latin to the vernacular, which marked the beginning of the cultural-national awakening of ethnic groups within the multiethnic Habsburg Empire.

In the mid-eighteenth centry, the Habsburgs became interested in providing basic education for all subjects ad a means of creating a cohesive empire. Primary education served to instill pupils with loyalty to the Crown and its values. Catholicism was an important element, serving as a counterforce against the threat of nationalism and ethnic challenges.

In the nineteenth century, the Habsburgs offered ambitions students of all nationalities  the opportunity to study in its respected schools or to become part of the military officer corps. At the same time, authorities made it increasingly difficult for students who wanted to study in their own local language, be it Slovene, Croat, or Romanian – limiting the opportunity to schools that used German or (after 1867 especially) Hungarian as their primary language.

Still, the empire offered many people, and not just its German- and Hungarian-speaker, an opportunity to study in reputable universities and other schools abroad. The level of literacy and general education were higher here than elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

Every male in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy had to be available for military service from January 1 in the year of his 19th birthday until December 31 in the year of his 42nd birthday. Because the population was made up of so many groups, each with its own language – German speaking Austrians, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Ruthenians, Croats, Serbs, Slovenes , Romanians, Italians and Islamic Slavs – it was arranged whenever possible that men from one area who spoke the same tongue served together.

The Army therefore was based upon a ‘territorial’ model and the empire divided into areas for manning purposes. These areas were called Ergänzungsbezirke: literally, districts that filled the military ranks. In peace time, the Army was organized in sixteen corps districts called Militärterritorial (Korps) Bezirke, each containing a number of divisions, which in turn each had its own brigades and auxiliary units required in the field.

4. Religions

The area called Austria included an ethnic mixture of Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Ruthenians (Ukrainians), Vlachs (Romanians), Serbs, Croats and Italians. It had a Roman Catholic majority with Orthodox Christians, Greek Catholics, Lutherans and Reformed (both are Evangelical), Jews, and Muslims. Roman Catholicism was the tax-supported state church but adherents of the world’s three great monotheistic religions lived in the Habsburg empire:

  • Christian
    Roman Catholicism
    Greek Catholicism (Eastern Rite Catholicism including)
    Protestantism (Evangelical/Lutheran, Evangelical/Reformed, Mennonite and Baptist

For hundreds of years, the Ruthenian people had been Orthodox Christians and were persecuted for that by the Roman Catholic Poles. In 1596, a group of Orthodox bishops and the Roman Catholic Church in Rome signed the Union of Brest, which stipulated that the rites and traditions of the Orthodox Church would be preserved while acknowledging the primacy of the Catholic pontiff. Although strife followed, most Ruthenians living under Polish jurisdiction followed the bishops into what is called the Uniate, or Greek Catholic Church. It was their monasteries that dotted the countryside at the time of the Austrian annexation of Galicia.

Eighteen-century empress Maria Theresa, a devout Catholic, ordered the Protestant inhabitants of her Austrian lands to convert or be forced to migrate to Transylvania, the one territory in her Empire where religious toleration was practiced. In 1752-1758, 2974 persons were forced to migrate and a second wave followed in 1773-1776, a policy that sadly resulted in high fatalities. Her predecessor had forced Protestants to lave the empire but by keeping them within the empire, she assured that Protestant peasants would contribute to Habsburg state revenues.

Maria Theresa attempted various social reforms in regard to education and the modification of serfdom into a lord-subject relationship. Her son Joseph II expanded the reforms and included a Patent of Toleration with freedom of conscience and religion for settlers. It must be noted that although they applied parity in Roman Catholic and Greek Catholic relations, the two Habsburg ruler did limit the exercise o the Protestant faith. The Catholic Church was supported by the state, which built and furnished churches, endowed them with land, and enforced mandatory tithing. In turn, the state delegated responsibility for the education of children to the Church.

A school law for compulsory Catholic religious instruction in all schools, regardless of the pu0pil’s religious affiliation, was adopted in 1869 {note: this was after religious liberty was granted in 1861!) and while not uniformly enforced, had adverse effects.

Marriages between Catholics of different ethnic background were common since a
German Catholic, for example, would feel less threatened by a Polish Catholic or Slovak Catholic than by a German Lutheran.

Maria Theresa was also anti-Semitic and with difficulty was persuaded to withdraw an order to evict the entire Jewish community of Prague. When Austria gained Galicia in 1772, she regretted that the acquisition more than doubled the Jewish population of her Empire. Still the empire did not allow pogroms or lynch mob terrorism.

The Balkans in the southern part of the empire were one third (1/2) Muslim in the nineteenth century. Bosnia-Herzegovina’s population remained over forty percent Muslim in 1992.

5. In Conclusion

Nationality, citizenship and suffrage rights, use of language in schooling and service, and religion each contributed to an individual’s and family’s identity in the Habsburg empire. A family history researcher is challenged to document these factors to gain broader, more authentic understanding of the people who lived in the Habsburg heart of Europe.


Irmgard Hein Ellingson, the past president of FEEFHS and the American-born daughter of Volhynian German refugees, has spent more that 25 years engaged in eastern European study and research. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in political science and history from Winona (Minnesota/USA) State College in 1974 and a Master of Arts in theology with an emphasis in congregational studies from Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa/USA in 1993. Her credits include several books and shorter works that have been published in German, English, and Portuguese in the United States, Canada, Germany, and Brazil. Irmgard is a founding and continuing director of the Bukovina Society of the Americas (Ellis, Kansas, USA), and editorial board member of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia (Lincoln, Nebraska/USA), and the former U.S. representative for the quarterly Wandering Volhynians (Vancouver, British Columbia/Canada). She is an associate in ministry serving Mission Unity Lutheran Parish in Grafton and rural Osaga, Iowa. Irmgard and her husband, the Re. Wayne T. Ellingson, reside in Grafton.


See John Dixon-Nuttall’s “The Austro-Hungarian Army 1914-1918” Chapter 1, posted online at

Dominic Lieven’s “The Habsburg Empire” from the London School of Economics and Political Science contains further discussion at FATHOM: The Source for Online Learning at

See Professor John Breuilly’s “Background: Constitution of the Hapsburg Empire” posted at

The Hungarian perspective is presented by Stephen Borsody in “Hungary’s Road to Trianon: Peacemaking and Propaganda” posted at http://www.hungarian-history.hulib/tria/tria04.htm
Another discussion appears in

For more about this concept, see Richard A. Schermerhorn/s Comparative Ethic Relations (New York: Random House 1970.

Hahs Koh’s The idea of Nationalism: A Study in Its Origin and Background (New York: Macmillan Press, 1961) develops this premise.

Dr. Paula E. Hyman, Lucy G. Moses Professor of Modern Jewish History at Yale, discusses “Jewish identity on the Global Frontier”

Sorcah Foy refers to this in the study “Reversing Langauge Shift in France: The Breton Case” (Trinity College in Dublin, 2002) page 17 (

My Galicia paper in 2002 FEEFHS Journal, 27, expands this discussion.

Lieven. op.cit.

June 2017