In November 1918, as the Great War came to an end, the man who had inherited one of the biggest empires in the world gave away the little power that remained to him. Karl I, ruler of the Austro Hungarian Empire, didn’t abdicate, but in reality, it didn’t matter as much of his realm had already fragmented. It had only existed for fifty years. It had boomed, and it had wobbled, it had enjoyed successes and experienced failures. Meanwhile, the dynasty that ruled it had, in those short years, produced some of the era’s most charismatic and fascinating royals. But in the cold last days of 1918, none of that mattered. One of the largest empires in the world was gone.
It had all begun very differently. Karl’s great uncle, Franz Josef I, had overseen the creation of this imperial power in 1867. He was part of the Hapsburg dynasty which had ruled much of central Europe for years. He had inherited the Austrian Empire in 1848 on the abdication of his uncle, Ferdinand I, who had seen rebellions against his rule in the preceding months. In particular, there had been continuing revolt in Hungary where large pockets of the population had long been opposed to the overarching Hapsburg rule which had been consolidated in the previous decades. Once the rebellions had been suppressed, elements of Hungarian autonomy, including its parliament, were suspended, but Franz Josef found that agitation against centralised rule wasn’t going to go away.
In 1867, he agreed to the Austro-Hungarian Compromise which signed into existence two separate entities governed by one man. Franz Josef became Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. However, behind the glitter and pageantry was a dramatic political agreement designed to protect Vienna from more rebellions and the Hapsburgs from losing power as they faced up to pressure from the nobility in Hungary. Austria and Hungary would have different parliaments and different prime ministers with Franz Josef ruling over all of them. His central government would also control areas including foreign policy as well as military strategies.
This was an empire to rival any other in Europe. At its height, it was the second biggest country on the continent and had the third biggest population. But that population was diverse, covering many different ethnic groups and ancient populations, at a time when the notion of independent nationhood was taking root across Europe and the world.
Initially, the successes outweighed the failures. The Austro Hungarian Empire enjoyed an economic boom with the western half becoming a centre of industrial production and the eastern part housing a strong agricultural economy. The central government built a renowned railway system which further boosted industrialisation while banking became another essential business in the empire.
Franz Josef, although in theory enjoying a form of absolute power, moved more towards constitutional monarchy and was regarded as an able ruler. His family provided all the glamour and romance that a royal dynasty needed to remain fascinating – and popular. In 1854, he had married Elisabeth of Bavaria in a love match, driven by the young emperor himself. His bride, known as Sisi, was young and very beautiful, but while her new husband adored her, she found life at his court stifling. However, she became celebrated for her beauty, her passion for fashion and her independent spirit.
The couple had four children, losing their eldest daughter, Sophie, in early infancy. Their only son, Rudolf, was heir to the massive empire from his birth in 1858 but grew up into a romantic, if reckless, young prince. Often parted from his parents for long periods of time, he developed liberal ideas and a love of the high life. In 1888, he began an affair with Baroness Marie Vetsera despite still being married to Stephanie of Belgium. The relationship drew strong criticism behind palace doors. However, the death of the lovers at Rudolf’s hunting lodge at Mayerling in January 1889, in an apparent murder-suicide, devastated Franz Josef and Sisi.
They spent increasing amounts of time apart but the royal family was rocked against in 1898 when the charismatic empress was assassinated during a visit to Switzerland. Sisi’s death made headlines around the world, the tragic end to her fascinating story. By then, her husband was negotiating new family problems with the new heir to the throne, his nephew Franz Ferdinand, whose political ideas were often different from those of the emperor. Franz Ferdinand was also determined to marry Countess Sophie Chotek even though regal rules meant his wife should come from a royal dynasty. Franz Josef finally agreed to their marriage but refused to attend the wedding and the groom was forced to sign an agreement that his bride would never be empress and their children never succeed to the throne. It would prove to be a pointless gesture.
The early 20th century saw the ethnic tensions which had always bubbled across the empire start to come to a head again as did confrontations with neighbouring states, among them Serbia. On a fateful day in 1914, Franz Ferdinand and Sophie headed out in Sarajevo where members of a Serbian backed group assassinated them. The Austro-Hungarian Empire made a list of ten demands. Serbia accepted all but one. Days later, the empire declared war, and soon countries across Europe took sides. The conflict known as the Great War had begun.
It didn’t go well for Austro-Hungary which, alongside, Germany fought a range of forces including Britain and France. Franz Josef died in 1916 and was succeeded by his great-nephew, Karl, but as the tide began to turn in the war, rapid change engulfed the realm he had inherited. As it became clear that the Allied Powers would win the war, calls for independence from countries across the empire turned into rebellion and finally secession. The Allied powers voiced their support for the demands for independence and in November 1918, Karl freed his officials from their oath of loyalty to him and renounced his rights to take part in state affairs.
A new map was drawn up in a series of treaties, reducing the once-mighty Austrian empire to a small, landlocked country while Hungary went its own way. Karl ended up living in Madeira although in 1921 he did try, unsuccessfully, to re-establish royal power in Hungary. He died in 1922 in Funchal after contracting bronchitis, leading to other serious health issues. He left eight children but no crown for any of them to inherit.
Ultimately, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was born of the very diversity which would lead to its end. In the boom years of the late 19th century and under the leadership of the calm, if somewhat anxious, Franz Josef, it was able to hold together, but once pressures were applied, within and without, the cracks began to show. Without the backing of the man who had helped create it, it soon disappeared into history, a mighty empire that fell into almost oblivion, its story forgotten in the dreadful events that unfurled quickly afterwards as the world headed towards war once more.