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Although Austria’s territorial heartland has always been modest in size, its monarchy ruled an empire that spanned continents and was once the last word in politics and high culture. How did it happen and how did it all change over time? To really understand this, it’s useful to know more about the civilisations and empires that figure in its colourful past. Civilisations & Empires is therefore where this history starts. Afterwards we take a trail through themes of post-WWII neutrality (Neutral, Nice & Not Guilty), uprisings (To the Barricades), Jewry (Jewish History in Austria) and foreign invasion of its territory (The Enemy at the Gate), culminating in one of the world’s most enduring family dynasties (Keeping it in the Family – the Habsburgs).

The Austrian Alps once formed the boundary between the more-established southern Roman territories and their newer, less stable conquests to the north. The main trade route for pack animals ran along the pass at the end of the Tauern Valley, but few settlements were established due to the Romans’ distrust of the treacherous climate (tales of malevolent, snowy spirits abounded) and difficult mountainous topography.

In 1971 the provinces of Carinthia, Salzburg and Tyrol agreed to the creation of a national park; regions were added in stages between 1981 and 1991 until it became Europe’s largest national park. Today it’s widely regarded as one of Europe’s biggest conservation success stories, an example of an approach where the needs of the local population are addressed right from the start.

Civilisations & empires

It would be an understatement to say that alpine regions of Austria were inhospitable places during the Ice Age some 30, 000 years ago. They were virtually impenetrable for human and beast. It’s therefore not surprising that while mammoths were lumbering across a frozen landscape, the more-accessible plains and Danube Valley in Lower Austria developed into early showplaces of civilisation. A visit to the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna contains two fascinating stone Venus statuettes that are reminders of this era.

When the Celts settled in the late Iron Age (around 450 BC) they also chose the valley of the Danube River and salt-rich regions around Salzburg, encountering Illyrians who had wandered there from the Balkan region. Gradually an Illyric–Celtic kingdom took shape, known as Noricum, that stretched from eastern Tyrol to the Danube and eastern fringes of the Alps in Carinthia.

The Romans, who crossed the Alps in force in 15 BC and settled south of the Danube River, carved up these regions into administrative areas and built fortresses (Limes) and towns such as Carnuntum, Vindobona (the forerunner of Vienna), Brigantium (Bregenz), Juvavum (Salzburg), Flavia Solva (Leibnitz in Styria), Aguntum and Virunum (north of Klagenfurt). However, the Western Empire created by the Romans collapsed in the 5th century, leaving a vacuum that was filled by newly arriving tribes: the Germanic Alemanni in Vorarlberg, Slavs who pushed into Carinthia and Styria, and Bavarians who settled south of the Danube in Upper and Lower Austria, Tyrol and around Salzburg. The Bavarians proved to be the most successful, and by the 7th century they had most regions of Austria in their grip, creating a large German-speaking territory.

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The carolingians strike back

But at this time it was still possible to talk only about tribes, not fully fledged empires. This changed in Europe and in Austria itself with the growth of the so-called Carolingian Empire in the 6th century. This was Europe’s most powerful empire in its day. It originated in western France and Belgium, grew into a heavyweight under Charlemagne (747–814) and took its inspiration from the Romans. Significantly for future Austria, Charlemagne created a buffer region in the Danube Valley, later dubbed Ostmark (Eastern March), which shored up the eastern edge of his empire, and in 800 he was crowned Kaiser by the pope.

Fate took another decisive turn in 976, when the Eastern March landed in the hands of Leopold von Babenberg (940–94), a descendent of a noble Bavarian family. The Babenbergs were a skilful family who in the 11th century expanded their small territory to include most of modern-day Lower Austria (with Vienna), and a century later Styria (1192) and much of Upper Austria. In 1156, under the Babenberg monarch Heinrich II ‘Jasmirogott’, the Eastern March (still a political fence at that time) was elevated to a duchy (ie with its own duke and special rights) and Vienna became its capital.

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The empire of the habsburgs

The Babenberg dynasty, however, ran out of heirs in 1246 when one of its rulers, Duke Friedrich II, died in battle with neighbouring Hungarians over a border dispute. This had enormous ramifications for future Austria because it led to the catapulting of another noble family, the Habsburgs, to power in Europe. In a twist of bad fortune, a Bohemian monarch of the day, Ottokar II, married Friedrich’s widow and in 1273 refused to recognise the election to king by prince-electors of a another noble whose star was rising in Central Europe – the Habsburg Rudolf I (1218–91).

This caused one of the most celebrated clashes in Austrian history when in 1278 the House of Habsburg and Bohemian arch rival Ottokar II (who also controlled Styria and Carinthia) fought it out on the Marchfeld, situated 30km northeast of Vienna. Ottokar, held up while trying to penetrate Drosendorf’s fortress en route to the battle, was killed in battle, ­allowing the Habsburg family to reign over the Holy Roman Empire.

That was pretty much the way things remained for over 500 years. It’s only a modest simplification to say that between the era in which mammoths roamed the frozen wastes and the next important change – the arrival of 164cm, low-rise Napoleon in the early 19th century – Austria had seen early human settlers (the ones who carved those Venus statuettes), two major civilisations (Illyrians and the Celts), one Roman Empire and two families (the Babenbergs and the Habsburgs) control the land.

The French Revolution of 1789–99 was a political explosion that ushered in a new age of republicanism in Europe, and it challenged surviving feudalistic anachronisms like the Holy Roman Empire. Thus, although Napoleon was soundly defeated in Leipzig in 1813 and, finally, at Waterloo in 1815, his advance across Europe caused its collapse. The Habsburgs survived, however, and in the post-Napoleon Vormärz (Pre-March) years, they dominated a loose Deutscher Bund (German Alliance) comprising hundreds of small ‘states’ cobbled together in a period of cultural flourish – called the Biedermeier period.

Given that ordinary citizens at the time were kept on a short leash by their political masters, it’s not surprising that they began to seek new freedoms. In 1848, inspired by the February 1848 revolution in France, Austrians demanded their own parliament. One was created and met (without Hungary, a Habsburg possession at the time, and without parts of Italy that had been in Habsburg hands) in July that year. But revolution and a democratic parliament failed to endure in Austria.

In 1867 a dual monarchy was created in Austria and Hungary, arising out of an attempt by the Habsburgs to hold onto support for the monarchy among Hungarians by giving them a large degree of autonomy. This Austro-Hungarian Empire would grow to include core regions of Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovine, as well as regions like the Voivodina in Serbia, and small chunks in northern Italy, Romania, Poland and the Ukraine.

This was the so-called ‘KuK’ (König und Kaiser; King and Kaiser) monarchy – the Kaiser of Austria was also King of Hungary. In practice, the two countries increasingly went separate ways, united only by the dual monarch and a couple of high-level ministries like ‘war’ and ‘foreign affairs’.

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The modern republics

The turmoil caused by defeat in WWI, however, brought this to an end, laying the foundations for modern Austria. Austrians demanded a fully fledged republic, and they got one, ending 640 years of Habsburg rule.

This First Republic was the country’s first experiment with truly democratic institutions, but the stigma of WWI defeat weakened it. Austria, now reduced almost to the size of the country we know today, lost access to resources beyond its own borders, which caused economic problems. Polarisation was another hurdle. This had a geographical edge in Austria: ‘Rotes Wien’ (Red Vienna) was controlled by a socialist city government, while rural regions were firmly in the grip of the conservative federal government of the Christian Socials. Chaos broke out in March 1933 when the Christian Socials chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss (1892–1934) dissolved parliament and, in what was virtually a putsch, prevented it from sitting.

Dollfuss’ sympathies lay with the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) and the Catholic Church. He banned the communist party and the pro-German Austrian Nazi Party (this favoured annexation of Austria by Germany), and when he took up the battle with the Social Democrats, he sparked the Austrian Civil War in 1934.

By 1936, however, Hitler and Mussolini had created a RomeBerlin axis and Austria found itself between a rock and a hard place. In March 1938, Hitler’s troops invaded Austria, and Hitler, an Austrian himself, ruled the country as an appendage of Germany until 1945.

Soviet, not Allied, troops liberated Vienna in March 1945, triggering a twilight period in which the Soviet Union, Britain, the USA and France occupied Austria and carved up the capital into zones – the famous ‘four men in a jeep’ period. It was the beginning of the Second Republic –today’s Republic of Austria.

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Neutral, nice & not guilty

In 1948 the British author Graham Greene flew to Vienna and roamed the bomb-damaged streets looking for inspiration for a film he had been commissioned to write about the occupation of post-WWII Vienna. As chance would have it, Greene penned the script for one of Europe’s finest films about the era – The Third Man, starring Orson Wells as the penicillin racketeer Harry Lime. In a moment of improvisation the end of the film, Orson Wells as Lime waxes lyrical about how under the bloody reign of the Borgias’ Italy produced some of its finest art. ‘In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.’

Postwar Austria sought the kind of Swiss stability that makes a cuckoo clock fascinating. One day in April 1945, at the instigation of the Soviet Union, the country was proclaimed a republic for the second time in its history. The constitution from 1920 was revived (in its 1929 form), and pre-Nazi laws from March 1933 came back into force; free elections were held in November 1945.

The Soviet Union insisted on Austria declaring its neutrality as a condition for ending occupation in 1955. At the last minute, though, recognition of Austria’s guilt for WWII was struck out of the State Treaty that paved the way for neutral independence. Its neutrality differs from the Swiss ‘cuckoo clock’ model, however, because Austria joined the UN and has even participated in international peace-keeping forces. The Second Republic became a mostly quiet, peaceful period during which the economy enjoyed solid growth or boom conditions, Austria played a moderating role during the East–West frost, and the world forgot about the past.

This silence was shattered in 1986, however, and not surprisingly it was the guilt question again. When accusations surfaced that presidential candidate Kurt Waldheim had been involved in Nazi war crimes, Austria seriously confronted its Nazi past for the first time. Evidence that he had committed war crimes while a lieutenant serving with the German army in the Balkans could never be proved, but nor was Austria’s elected president willing to fully explain himself or express misgivings about his wartime role.

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To the barricades

While empires waxed and waned, Austria was wracked by revolt and resistance. Apart from frequent squabbles between sycophantic monarchs, the first large-scale uprising took place in the mid- and late-15th century, when peasants in Austria (as elsewhere in Central Europe) rose up against their nobility in the Peasants’ Wars. These upheavals were spontaneous and directed at local despots, however, rather than against the empire itself. The roots of discontent could be found in a need for cash to finance defences against the Turks, or in some instances demands by an oppressive monarch during the drawn-out anti-reformation.

In April 1809, during the Napoleonic occupation, Tyrol – which had fallen into the hands of Bavaria – was the scene of another rebellion when innkeeper Andreas Hofer (1767–1810) led a rebellion for independence. For his troubles, Hofer was put on trial and executed at Napoleon’s behest. His body is entombed in Innsbruck’s Hofkirche.

The next show of strength from the people was the Revolution of 1848. Austrians suffered badly during the system of atrophy under Klemens von Metternich, a diplomat who rose to power in the splash caused by Napoleon’s fall. Metternich believed in the power of absolute monarchy and his police snapped ferociously at the heels of liberals and Austrian nationalists in the decades before revolution. This Vormärz era (ie pre-March 1848, and also called ‘Biedermeier’) was culturally rich, but socially the air was heavy with political resignation and Austrians grew insular. This was about to change, not least because atrocious industrial conditions were making the country ripe for change. Nationalism – the best chance of liberalising societies in those days – was also threatening to chip the delicate edges of the Habsburg empire.

The sparks of February revolution in Paris (1848) flared in Vienna in March, but, reflecting the city–country divide, failed to really ignite Austria elsewhere except in Styria. In one ironic twist, a similar revolution in Germany meant some Austrian revolutionaries supported being part of a greater, unified and liberal Germany. This was the tricky Grossdeutsch-Kleindeutsch (Greater Germany–Lesser Germany) question, and reflects the difficult affinity between Austrians and Germans.

The rebels demanded a parliament, and briefly they got one in May 1848. Kaiser Ferdinand I packed his bags and his family and fled to Innsbruck. This should have been the end of the Habsburgs. It wasn’t. Parliament passed a bill improving the lot of the peasants, and Ferdinand cleverly sanctioned this, overnight winning the support of rural folk in the regions. Meanwhile, the Habsburgs received a popular boost when General Radetzky (1766–1858) won back Lombardy (Italy) in successful military campaigns.

In October 1848 revolution reached fever pitch in Vienna. Although this uprising was ultimately quashed, the Habsburgs decided to dispense with Ferdinand I, replacing him with his nephew Franz-Joseph I, who introduced his own monarchical constitution and dissolved the parliament in early 1849. It would only be revived properly in 1867.

By September 1849 it was time to weigh up the damage, count the dead and, most importantly, look at what had been won. Austria was not a democracy, because the Kaiser could veto the Reichstag’s legislation. But revolution had swept away the last vestiges of feudalism and made state citizens out of royal subjects.

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The nazi era

By 1927, these citizens inhabited a very different world. WWI had ended in defeat and armed paramilitary groups roamed the streets of Vienna and elsewhere engaging in bloody clashes. A July revolt broke out in 1927 when left-wing groups stormed the Palace of Justice in Vienna. This was prompted by a court having acquitted members of a right-wing paramilitary Frontkämpfer (Front Fighters) group charged with killing two people during demonstrations. The police moved in and regained control of the building, but about 90 people died in the revolt and over 1000 were injured.

In the late 1920s and the 1930s, the stakes were raised even higher and, with the annexation of Austria by Hitler in 1938, opposition turned to resistance. As elsewhere, whenever Hitler’s troops jackbooted over a border, resistance from within was extremely difficult. Communists and Social Democrats were outlawed in the early 1930s and fought from underground. Members of the Social Democratic Worker’s Party fought a four-day battle with police in Linz and Vienna before being banned and their leadership was arrested.

The role of Austria during WWII is one of the most controversial aspects of its modern history. Austria’s home-grown brand of Austro-Fascism had favoured independence, but Hitler was popular inside Austria, and Austria itself supplied a disproportionately large number of officers for the SS and the German army. In short, what Hitler and the Nazis couldn’t achieve through pressure, large numbers of Austrians themselves helped achieve through their active and passive support for Nazism and Hitler’s war.

Interestingly, Tyrolean resistance leaders often rallied opposition to Nazism by recalling the revolt of innkeeper Andreas Hofer in 1809. An Österreichisches Freiheitsbataillon (Austrian Freedom Battalion) fought alongside the Yugoslav People’s Liberation Army, and partisan groups in Styria and Carinthia maintained links with other partisans across the Yugoslavian border. Tellingly, unlike other countries, Austria had no government in exile.

Resistance increased once the war looked lost for Hitler. The Austrian Robert Bernardis (1908–44) was involved in the assassination attempt on Hitler by military brass on July 20, 1944 and was then executed by Nazis. Another involved in that plot, Carl Szokoll (1915–2004), survived undetected. The most famous resistance group, however, was called 05, whose members included Austria’s president from 1957 to 1965, Adolf Schärf (1890–1965).

With the Red Army approaching Vienna in 1945, 05 worked closely with Szokoll and other military figures in Operation Radetzky to liberate Vienna in the last days of the war. Although they were able to establish contact with the Red Army as it rolled towards Vienna, they were betrayed at the last moment and several members were strung up from street lanterns. The Red Army, not Austrians, would liberate the capital.

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Jewish history in austria

When the Nazis stomped into Vienna in March 1938, ordinary Austrians threw bouquets of flowers and cheered. A few days later, Hitler addressed tens of thousands of cheering Austrians on Vienna’s Heldenplatz to declare the integration of his ‘homeland’ into the Third Reich. For those Jews who had not yet managed to flee the country, this must have been a depressing moment. Vienna’s ‘father’ of modern psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), had not wanted to read the signs for a long time, but in June that year he fled to England. The 20th century’s most innovative classical composer, Arnold Schönberg (1874–1951), had already been booted out of his job as a lecturer in Berlin in 1933 and fled to the US. They were just two of many prominent Austrian Jews forced into exile.

Others were not as fortunate. The Holocaust (or ‘Schoa’), Hitler’s attempt to wipe out European Jewry, was a brutal and systematic act that saw some 65, 000 Austrian Jews perish in concentration camps throughout Europe. It ruptured a Jewish history in Austria dating back to the early Middle Ages, and even today it’s not really possible to talk about a ‘recovery’ of Jewish culture in the country.

The first mention of Jews in Vienna was in 1194, when a minter by the name of Schlom was appointed by the crown. The very same man was subsequently murdered along with 16 other Viennese Jews by zealous crusaders on their way to the Holy Land. Gradually, a ghetto grew around today’s Judenplatz in Vienna, where a large synagogue stood in the 13th century.

Historically, Jews could only work in some professions. They were seldom allowed into tradesmen’s guilds or to engage in agriculture and therefore earned a living through trading goods and selling, or through money lending, which explains many of the clichés of the past and present. Two ‘libels’ in the Middle Ages made life difficult for Jews. One of these was the ‘host desecration libel’, which accused Jews of desecrating Christ by such acts such as sticking pins into communion wafers and making them weep or bleed. The second was the ‘blood libel’, which accused Jews of drinking the blood of Christians during rituals. In 1420 these libels culminated in one of Vienna’s worst pogroms, during which many Jews committed collective suicide. The synagogue on Vienna’s Judenplatz was destroyed and the stones of the synagogue were used for the building of the old university.

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Out of the darkness

Jews were officially banned from settling in Vienna until 1624, but this law was regularly relaxed. It did mean, however, that Vienna’s Jews had a particularly rough time of it, and in 1670 when Leopold I (1640–1705) drove them out of Unterer Werd, the quarter was re-christened Leopoldstadt, the name it bears today. They returned, however, and this district remained Vienna’s largest Jewish quarter prior to WWII.

When money was tight following the 1683 Turkish siege, Jews were encouraged to settle in town as money lenders. Interestingly, once the threat subsided from 1718, Sephardic Jews from Spain arrived and were allowed to establish their own religious community. An edict from Kaiser Joseph II (1741–90) improved conditions for Jews and after Kaiser Franz I reinvented himself as Austria’s Kaiser and allowed Jews to establish schools, some of Vienna’s Jewry rose into bourgeois and literary circles.

The revolution of 1848 brought the biggest changes, however. Vienna’s Jews were at the forefront of the uprising, and it brought them freedom of religion, press and schooling. Indirectly, it also led to the founding of the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde (Jewish Religious Community), more than a century after the Sephardic Jews had founded their own. Today this is the main body that represents religious Jews in Austria.

Legally unfettered, Vienna’s Jews nevertheless found themselves walking a high tightrope. They owed much to the Habsburg monarchy and many therefore identified with it. Many also cherished the freedoms of revolution. And all inhabited an ‘Austrian–German’ cultural landscape. Somewhere in there, they also lived out their strong Jewish identity.

In 1878 Jewry in Austria was shaken up again by the arrival from Budapest of Theodor Herzl (1860–1904), who founded political Zionism, a concept that brought together the ideas of the workers’ movement with support for a Jewish state. His book Der Judenstaat (1896; The Jewish State) would later be crucial to the creation of Israel.

Beginning with Adolf Fischhof (1816–93), whose political speech on press freedom in 1848 helped trigger revolution, and continuing with Herzl and with the founding father of Austrian social democracy, Viktor Adler (1852–1918), Jews drove ahead reforms in Austria and played a key role during the Rotes Wien period of the 1920s and early 1930s.

This, of course, poured oil on the fires of Hitler’s ideology. When Hitler’s troops reached Vienna in 1938, Jews were subjected to attack and abuse. The tragedy was that the Jewish community had contributed so much to Viennese cultural and political life, and now many of Vienna’s non-Jewish citizens simply looked the other way.

The events that followed, culminating in the Holocaust, are etched in the collective memory of Jews everywhere: the prohibitive Nuremberg Laws, the forced sale and theft of Jewish property, the die Kristallnacht (‘Night of Broken Glass’) on 9–10 November, 1939 when synagogues and Jewish businesses burned and Jews were attacked openly on the streets.

Because of this, today the Jewish community is only a fraction of its former size. About 7000 religiously affiliated Jews live in Austria, and about another 3000 to 5000 who are not affiliated with a community. The number was boosted by the arrival of Jews from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. For a fascinating glimpse of Jewish life from the 13th century to today, don’t miss the Jewish Museum and the Museum Judenplatz, both in Vienna.

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The enemy at the gate

The Celts, the Romans and various tribes have all swept across borders at one time or another to lay claim to Austrian lands. In fact, Austria itself was originally founded as a border March to keep out tribes. The Turkish sieges, though, are the ones that really got the European imagination firing.

The Ottoman Empire viewed Vienna as ‘the city of the golden apple’, but it wasn’t Apfelstrüdel they were after in their great sieges. The first, in 1529, was undertaken by Süleyman the Magnificent, but the 18-day endeavour was not sufficient to break the resolve of the city. The Turkish sultan subsequently died at the siege of Szigetvár, yet his death was kept secret for several days in an attempt to preserve the morale of his army. The subterfuge worked for a while. Messengers were led into the presence of the embalmed body which was placed in a seated position on the throne. They then unwittingly relayed their news to the corpse.

At the head of the Turkish siege of 1683 was the general and grand vizier Kara Mustapha. Amid the 25, 000 tents of the Ottoman army that surrounded Vienna he installed his 1500 concubines, guarded by 700 black eunuchs. Their luxurious quarters contained gushing fountains and regal baths, all set up in haste but with great effect.

Again, it was all to no avail, even though Vienna was only lightly defended by 10, 000 men. Mustapha’s overconfidence was his downfall; failing to put garrisons on Kahlenberg, he and his army were surprised by a swift attack. Mustapha was pursued from the battlefield and defeated once again, at Gran. At Belgrade he was met by the emissary of the Sultan Mehmed IV. The price of failure was death, and Mustapha meekly accepted his fate. When the Austrian imperial army conquered Belgrade in 1718 the grand vizier’s head was dug up and brought back to Vienna in triumph.

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Keeping it in the family – the habsburgs

Possibly no other family has influenced the European continent – or the world for the matter – as much as the Habsburgs. Although its origins could never be described as humble, the family came a long way from its Habichtsburg (Hawke’s Nest) castle near Basle in present-day Switzerland.

Marriage, not muscle, was the historic key to Habsburg land grabbing. The Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus (1443–90) once adapted lines from Ovid when he wrote: ‘Let others wage war but you, lucky Austria, marry! For the empires given to others by Mars are given to you by Venus.’

The age of the convenient wedding began in earnest with Maximilian I (1459–1519), whose moniker was The Last Knight because of his late predilection for medieval tournaments. His other loves were Renaissance art, his own grave (which he commissioned during his own lifetime) and Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), who he commissioned to work on the very same grave before he stepped into it. It is now in Innsbruck’s Hofkirche.

But it was Maximilian’s affection for Maria of Burgundy (1457–82) that had the greatest influence on the fortunes of the Habsburgs. The two married, and when Maria fell from a horse and died as a result of a miscarriage in 1482, Burgundy, Lorraine and the Low Countries fell into Habsburg hands. In their day, these regions were the last word in culture, economic high-kicking and the arts. The downside was a sticky relationship with France that stuck to the Habsburg shoe for centuries.

The ‘Spanish Marriage’ in 1496 was another clever piece of royal bedding. When Maximilian’s son Philipp der Schöne (Philipp the Handsome) married Juana la Loca (1479–55; Johanna the Mad), Spain and its resource-rich overseas territories in Central and South America became Habsburg. When their son, Ferdinand I (1503–64) married Anna of Hungary and Bohemia (1503–47), fulfilling a deal his grandfather Maximilian I had negotiated with King Vladislav II (1456–1516), Bohemia was also in the Habsburg fold. In the same deal, Maria von Habsburg (1505–58) married into this Polish–Lithuanian Jagiellonen dynasty, which traditionally purveyed kings to Poland, Bohemia and Hungary at that time. By 1526, when her husband Ludwig II (1506–26) drowned in a tributary of the Danube during the Battle of Mohács against Turks, Silesia (in Poland), Bohemia (in the Czech Republic) and Hungary were all thoroughly Habsburg.

Under Karl V (1500–58), the era of the universal monarch arrived, and the Habsburgs had added the Kingdom of Naples (southern Italy, including Sicily). That, unfortunately, was about as good as it got.

The rot set in with the Treaty of Augsburg (1555), which regulated religious bickering surrounding the Reformation. This treaty stipulated that each ruler could decide the religion of his or her own region. Not only does this explain the patchwork of Protestant and Catholic religions today in many regions that used to be part of the Holy Roman Empire, but it also made a mess of the Habsburgs because Karl V had dedicated his life to creating his so-called ‘universal Catholic monarchy’. Seeing the writing clearly on the wall, he abdicated in 1556 and withdrew to a monastery in Spain to lick his wounds and die.

The spoils were divided up among Habsburgs. The brother of Karl V – Ferdinand I (the same one who had married Anna of Hungary and Bohemia) –inherited Austria and (yes, you guessed it) Hungary and Bohemia, and Karl V’s only legitimate son, Philipp II (1527–98) got Spain, Naples and Sicily, the Low Countries, and the overseas colonies.

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Maria theresia

If Maximilian I was the Last Knight, Maria Theresia (1717–80) was the mother of the nation. Thrust into the limelight when her father died with no male heirs, she held onto power for 40 years, while also managing to give birth to 16 children – among them Marie Antoinette, future wife of Louis XVI. Maria Theresia’s fourth child, Joseph II, weighed a daunting 7kg at birth.

Although Maria Theresia pushed through many enlightened reforms, she was remarkably prudish for a family that had married and copulated its way to power. One of her less popular measures was the introduction of the short-lived Commission against Immoral Conduct in 1752, which raided private homes, trying to catch men entertaining loose women – the commission even tried to snare Casanova during his visit to Vienna.

Maria Theresia’s low take on fornication was no doubt coloured by the conduct of her husband, Francis I, who was apparently very adept in just that field. Yet despite his philandering, Maria Theresia felt she should remain loyal to her spouse, and when he died suddenly in 1765 she stayed in mourning for the rest of her life. She retreated to Schloss Schönbrunn in Vienna, left the running of the state in the hands of Joseph II (of 7kg fame), and adopted a low-profile and chaste existence.

Although the last Habsburg ruler abdicated in 1918, the family is still going strong in public life.

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