Habsburgs (Hapsburgs)


Hapsburg or Habsburg (both: hăps´bûrg, Ger. häps´bŏŏrk), ruling house of Austria (1282–1918).

Rise to Power

The family, which can be traced to the 10th cent., originally held lands in Alsace and in NW Switzerland. Otto (d. 1111) took the name Hapsburg from a castle near Aargau, Switzerland, when he was designated count. Vast estates in Upper Alsace, Baden, and Switzerland were inherited (1173) by his grandson Count Albert III (d. 1199) and passed to Rudolf II (d. 1232) and Albert IV (d. c.1240). The extinction of the houses of Lenzburg, Zähringen, and Kyburg facilitated family acquisitions.

The election (1273) of Count Rudolf IV as Rudolf I, king of the Germans, provoked war with King Ottocar II of Bohemia. Ottocar's defeat and death at the Marchfeld (1278) confirmed Hapsburg possession of Austria, Carniola, and Styria; these lands and the Austrian ducal title were declared hereditary by Rudolf in 1282. In 1335 Carinthia too was claimed. Possession of these dominions marked the rise of the Hapsburgs to European significance. Held in common by the sons of Albert I and of Albert II, the many lands were divided, after the death (1365) of Duke Rudolf IV, between the Albertine and Leopoldine lines (named for his brothers).

Hapsburg Ascendancy

The Hapsburg lands were reunited under Maximilian I at the end of the 15th cent. In the meantime, Tyrol (1363), NE Istria (1374), and Trieste (1382) were added to the Hapsburg domain. Albert V of Austria, married to a daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, succeeded him as king of Bohemia and Hungary and was chosen (1438) German king as Albert II. Henceforth, with one exception, the head of the house of Hapsburg was elected German king and Holy Roman emperor (see Holy Roman Empire for a complete list of emperors).

Though Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III raised (1453) Austria to an archduchy and acquired (1471) Fiume, he had to struggle to maintain the Hapsburg realms during his constant warfare against Matthias Corvinus, king of Hungary and Bohemia. Under Frederick and his son, Maximilian I, a series of marriages greatly increased the hereditary holdings of the dynasty and gave rise to the saying "Let others wage war; thou, happy Austria, marry."

Most of the Low Countries (see Netherlands, Austrian and Spanish) were acquired by the marriage of Maximilian to Mary of Burgundy. The marriage of their son, Philip I, to Joanna of Castile, brought Philip's elder son, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, to the throne of Spain. The marriage of Charles's younger brother, Ferdinand, to Anna, daughter of Louis II of Bohemia and Hungary, strengthened the Hapsburg claim to these possessions after the death (1526) of Louis at Mohács. Hapsburg power reached its zenith under Charles V.

The reigns of Maximilian I and Charles V, while encompassing the height of Hapsburg power, also witnessed the emergence of the enduring struggles that eventually sapped Hapsburg strength. These included the defense of Central Europe against the Turks; the support of the Catholic Church against the Protestant Reformation; and the defense of the dynastic position against the rise of France.

Shifting Fortunes

Charles V divided his dominions between his son, Philip II of Spain, and his brother, Ferdinand of Austria, Bohemia, and Hungary, who succeeded Charles as Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I. The Spanish and Austrian branches of the dynasty cooperated in the Thirty Years War (1618–48) and opposed the French in the Third Dutch War (1672–78) and in the War of the Grand Alliance (1688–97). The division of the family holdings, the acquisition of the royal crowns of Bohemia and Hungary, and the wars against the Turks in the 17th cent.—these factors transformed the dynasty into a polyglot monarchy, interested more in extending the family power in the Balkans than in purely German affairs.

The Hapsburgs lost Alsace, Franche-Comté, Artois, and part of Flanders and Hainaut during the wars against Louis XIV. In the War of the Spanish Succession, caused by the extinction of the Spanish Hapsburgs at the death (1700) of King Charles II, the family lost their claim to Spain. However, they retained the Austrian Netherlands and Lombardy and reconquered Hungary from the Turks. By the pragmatic sanction (1713), Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI guaranteed the indivisibility of the Hapsburg domains and the succession of his daughter, Maria Theresa.

In the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–48) and in the Seven Years War (1756–63), Maria Theresa lost Silesia to Prussia but successfully defended the rest of her inheritance. On the death of Charles Albert of Bavaria, Holy Roman emperor as Charles VII (1742–45), the imperial title was bestowed on Archduchess Maria Theresa's husband, Francis, grand duke of Tuscany and former duke of Lorraine, who became Francis I.

Maria Theresa inaugurated the bureaucratic centralization that was carried forward by her son Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II. With him began the line of Hapsburg-Lorraine. An enlightened despot, Joseph II instituted reforms that included abolition of serfdom, revision of the penal code, religious toleration, and reduction of the power of the church. Leadership in the Hapsburg empire was given to the Germans. Tuscany, separated (1790) from the main family holding, was held until 1860 by a junior branch of the dynasty (except during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras). The duchy of Modena, acquired (1806) by marriage, was also possessed until 1859 by a junior branch.

The senior line was continued by the brother of Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, who repealed many of the reforms of Joseph II. Leopold's son, Francis II, assumed (1804) the title Francis I, emperor of Austria, and abdicated as Holy Roman emperor in 1806. Though repeatedly humbled by Napoleon I, Francis emerged at the Congress of Vienna (1815) as one of the most powerful European monarchs. Giving up the Austrian Netherlands, the Hapsburgs regained Dalmatia, Istria, and Tyrol. They were compensated with Salzburg and in N Italy with Lombardy and Venetia, which, with Tuscany, Modena, and Parma, made the Italian peninsula virtually a Hapsburg appendage.

Final Decline

In the 19th cent. the Hapsburg position was challenged in Germany by Prussia, in Italy by Sardinia, and in the Balkans by Russia. During the revolutions of 1848, Francis's son Ferdinand abdicated in favor of his nephew Francis Joseph, whose long rule (1848–1916) saw Austria lose (1859) its dominance in Italy and surrender (1866) leadership in Germany to Prussia.

In 1867 the Hapsburg lands were reorganized as the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. Buffeted by the twin forces of liberalism and nationalism and torn by the fratricidal hostilities of the polyglot national groups, the Hapsburg monarchy failed to create any ideological basis for its existence, failed to curb the domineering national groups (Hungarians, Germans, and Poles), and failed to satisfy the demands of the rising middle and industrial classes.

The assassination of heir apparent Francis Ferdinand precipitated World War I; the death (1916) of Francis Joseph left his grandnephew, Emperor Charles I, to witness the defeat of Austria-Hungary, which was dissolved immediately after Charles's abdication in 1918. Charles's son, Archduke Otto (see Hapsburg, Otto von), succeeded him as head of the Hapsburgs. The unresolved problems of the Hapsburg monarchy remained to torment the Balkan successor states. After World War I, members of the family who refused to renounce the throne were exiled from Austria; the exile was repealed in 1996.


See R. A. Kann, The Habsburg Empire (1957) and Multinational Empire (1950, repr. 1964); H. Kohn, The Hapsburg Empire: 1804–1918 (1961); A. J. May, The Passing of The Hapsburg Monarchy, 1914–1918 (2 vol., 1966) and The Hapsburg Monarchy, 1867–1914 (1951, repr. 1968); E. Crankshaw, The Hapsburgs (1971, repr. 1983); V. L. Tapié, The Rise and Fall of the Hapsburg Monarchy (1971); R. J. Evans, The Making of the Hapsburg Monarchy: 1550–1700 (1979); A. Wheatcroft, The Habsburgs (1996).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Habsburgs (Hapsburgs): Selected full-text books and articles

Hungarian Culture and Politics in the Habsburg Monarchy, 1711-1848 By Gábor Vermes Central European University Press, 2014
The Coming of the First World War By R. J. W. Evans; Hartmut Pogge Von Strandmann Clarendon Press, 1990
Germany in Western Civilization By William Harvey Maehl University of Alabama, 1979
Looking for a topic idea? Use Questia's Topic Generator
Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.