J. J. Reiner - Assassination Attempt on Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph

Indivisibiliter ac Inseparabiliter: Loyalty to The Habsburg Dynasty in the Era of Nationalist Movements

The invasion of Napoleon was repelled in front of the walls of Moscow and was crushed utterly in Waterloo. But this invasion was not just a military campaign. Even Napoleon was defeated by other European Great Powers; Europe plunged into turmoil after him.  The destruction of his waged war (as it happened in all wars, not unique for this occasion) was removed, something was left behind him which could not be easily removed as the former one; ideas.

After the utter defeat of Napoleon, European Great Powers gathered a meeting to discuss Europe and France in the Habsburg Empire. They reshaped the boundaries and agreed upon to suppress the ideas which were sprung with French Revolution. But the ideas are the most effective tools to rule the people. A simple idea can rule a great number of masses which can be ruled by thousands of soldiers; sometimes even that number may not be sufficient. Thus, the ideas began to affect people slowly. However, the common people had nothing to do with the idea of nationalism at first. Actually, nationalism rose with the rise of middle class, and intellectual activities of some members of upper class woke up this idea among people, of course accompanied with more appealing ideas beyond that.

Nationalism is a very influential disintegrating disease for the multinational empires. Once it entered into the minds of subjects in the empire, the preventing it from disintegration is very hard. The empire either would collapse against this disease or would change its nature to adopt new dynamics. Thus, this new movement of nationalism was a primary danger for the existing of the multinational empires, such as the Romanovs, the Ottomans and the Habsburgs. All of these empires shared the same fate with the World War I. In this paper was written to seek answer how the Habsburg monarchy gained popular allegiance of its subjects, what they did to adopt the changes they faced.

The House of Habsburg was the longest reigning dynasty in Europe. But how did a dynasty have allegiance of people in the past? The words from the Holy Scripture “By me kings reign and rulers make laws which are just” (Proverbs 8). This was understood to mean not only that God calls the ruler – in the sense of the divine right of kings – to his reign, but also that God assists the ruler continuously with his governmental tasks and inspires him to a just rule, as long as the ruler allows himself to be led by God.[1] In medieval times, the dynasty first took its authority directly from God. It was protector of the Catholic religion and its pious believers. Then, a bond of feudal relationship tied together a group of non-homogenous lands into a comprehensive entity.[2] So, the dynasty had the legitimacy from God and the allegiance of feudal lords. But in the nineteenth century those medieval practices lost their credits because the policy became more rationalized. Metternich was well aware of the importance of legitimizing the state’s authority in the eyes of the people. He had learned as much from his time as Ambassador of Paris, as he wrote, “Public opinion is the most powerful of forces … which like religion penetrates the most obscure recess, where administrative actions are ineffective; to misunderstand public opinion is as dangerous as to misunderstand moral principles.”[3]

The Habsburg Empire was not dominated by one majority nation; the dynasty was originally German, but Germans who were more advanced than the others were not the majority of the population; the total number of the other nations in the empire outnumbered Germans. There were Magyars following Germans, Czechs, Polishes, Ruthenians, Romanians, Croats, Serbians, Italians and Slovaks. Thus, unlike its Russian counterpart in which Russians were the majority of the population the Habsburg Empire was very rich about the diversity of its population without any major nation. This prevented the government to make the majority group as its base and to eliminate or to assimilate the others as a possible solution. In this case, the ruling elite had to find a common place to meet all others which could be accepted by majority without conflict. The common point was the dynasty. They hoped that a closer identification of the dynasty with its subjects and the other way around would turn the Habsburg Empire into a counter-revolutionary force. Hormayr dedicated his considerable talents and energies to arguing that loyalty a single house and church made Habsburg subjects one people.[4] The dynasty had advantages to obtain the popular allegiance. Its historical missions could do that. The Habsburgs discharged many missions. In the sixteenth century they defended Europe from the Turk; in the seventeenth century they promoted the victory of the Counter-Reformation; in the eighteenth century they propagated the ideas of the Enlightenment; in the nineteenth century they acted as a barrier against a Great German nation state.[5] They believed that the Habsburg Monarchy was capable of compromising and equalizing with the common allegiance to the crown of all peoples under the Habsburg sceptre; only a monarchical system which had a strong historic tradition could stand above national affiliation and preferences. The Habsburgs were seen as a supra-national dynasty. Thus it could resolve any national and cultural conflicts which might arise and which could personify an “imperial idea” that would serve as rallying point to hold together the diverse national groups living within the confines of the monarchy.[6]

The idea of dynasty entered the agenda of the ruling elite in the era of Franz Joseph who ruled the empire between 1848 in times of revolutions and 1916, after he led the empire to the World War I. Franz Joseph was the ruler in times of the most critical events happened in the empire. In 1848, the date of his accession, Hungarians had risen up demanding parliamentary government and the transformation of the Habsburg rule into a constitutional monarchy. But this rebellion was suppressed by the Austrian army and with the help of Russian Empire. This absolutist victory led suspension of the constitution. However, this occasion did not continue for a long time. Military defeat by a French-Italian coalition a decade later, then by the Prussians in 1866, weakened Austria, and in 1867 Austro-Hungarian Empire was established. In fact, acts of cruelty and intolerance like the treatment of Bohemia after the Battle of White Mountain and that of Hungary after the Capitulation of Vilagos were deeply regrettable responses to nationalism rather than expressions of a different kind of national preference.[7]

The Compromise of 1867 made the Habsburg rule a Dual Monarchy; the Austrian sphere and the Hungarian half of the empire and the Habsburg Monarch was emperor of both kingdoms. Now, the figure of the emperor had changed. He became depoliticisized and above all the interests and the prejudices of his people. In some respects, this apolitical image can be seen as making a virtue out of necessity, because, in view of the problem faced by the government, a partisan intervention by the emperor would have been extremely damaging to his popularity as an integrating figure for the monarchy as a whole.[8] The idea of loyalty to the dynasty came into existence with Emperor Franz Joseph himself, but this notion had not enough time to be tested whether it was bequeathed to the heirs or not. His position of above politics did not contribute to a resolution of the nationalities conflicts; it did establish the emperor as a focal point for an emotional connection to the state.[9] Fundamental for the representation of the unity of Emperor and People was the image of Franz Joseph as the loving father of his subjects, for which he was repeatedly praised by much of the middle class press during the jubilee and beyond. In a typical 1908 jubilee commentary, the Deutsche Volksblatt claimed that over the course of his sixty-year reign, Franz Joseph had always desired to be the father, not the ruler of his people. And just as a father loves his children, children also love their father.[10] He began to be seen in public more often. And those public meetings began to be more glorious than the formers. The milestones of Franz Joseph’s life were the natural focus for staged expressions of public loyalty, beginning with the imperial couple’s silver wedding in April 1879, and the wedding of Rudolf and Stephanie of Belgium in 1881, then the celebration of 1000 years of Hungarian monarchy in 1896, the 1898 silver jubilee of the Emperor’s accession, and in 1908, a pageant honouring sixty glorious years.[11] The Votivkirche, erected to commemorate Franz Joseph’s luck escape from an assassin’s knife in 1853, set the pattern, an subsequent years the towns of the empire showed their patriotism by taking collections and erecting buildings, from hospitals to schools and orphanages, generally named after the Emperor or Empress. In many cases either the Emperor himself or one of the imperial family would perform the opening ceremony. This, in its way, did do something to bring the monarchy closer to the people. The emperor became not merely a portrait on the wall, but living being, whom many had seen with their own eyes.[12]

The ruling elites planned to present the Habsburg dynasty to the people to appeal their interest and loyalty. Crowned Prince Rudolf’s idea was for a popular encyclopaedia of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, presented in words and in pictures, and to sell to a wide public. It was planned as twenty-four substantial volumes, but published in small sections each week in paper covers, so they could be afforded by individuals. From 1886 it continued with weekly publication until the final chapters appeared in 1902, sixteen years later. But the audience and focus have changed radically. Rudolf’s aim was to create a sense of patriotic identity among individual citizens, not to produce volumes that would sit unread on the shelves of libraries and law offices.[13] Not all citizens were literate, and with ethnic and linguistic diversity of the Habsburg lands the written word was not effective means of instilling a sense of popular patriotism.[14]

Education was another tool to make the dynasty as the uniting umbrella of the Habsburg subjects. They began to rewrite the past to reconcile the different kinds of historic nations under the Habsburg sceptre. The “Austrian Plutarch”, written by historian, archivist, and publicist Johann von Hormayr in the early part of the nineteenth century, placed Austrian rulers alongside heroes from Bohemian and Hungarian history (who were always portrayed as loyal to the Habsburgs). In this way, central figures in the newly emerging Czech national mythology such as Libuse and Charles IV (King of Bohemia 1346-78, Holy Roman Emperor 1355-65), who was also the father-in-law of the Habsburg ruler Rudolf IV, could be integrated into the wider Austrian idea.[15] By doing that they intended to build up a sense of identification whit the crown land and with the dynasty.

Another thing that the dynasty did to provide allegiance of its subjects was to allow the cultural activities of its non-German peoples. Government-backed periodicals such as the Vaterländischen Blätter für den österreichischen Kaiserstaat also recommended cultural programs and institutions as ways of heightening local pride and enhancing public welfare.[16] Such undertaking would also, it was hoped, stimulate popular support for the ruling house. Opening the Hungarian diet, the emperor vowed to support the cultural interests of his non-German peoples, as long as it was made clear that the right of the house of Habsburg to rule was not in question. After the empire became Dual Monarchy the Hungarian part was a separate kingdom possessing autonomy, only in the fields of finance, foreign and military they were bound to the emperor. One of the essential clauses of the Compromise of 1867 between Franz Joseph and Hungary had been that the army should remain above nationalism, and the Magyars had recognized that maintenance of the army as a united force was necessary for the safety of the great Hungarian kingdom – even the leaders of the opposition had agreed in 1867 that the military question “must be settled in a unitary sense.”[17] In 1868 Nationalities acts was enacted to protect the rights of non-German and non-Hungarian nations. In the Austrian half of the empire, the government performed these laws; minorities had right to elementary education in their mother tongue. However, in the Hungarian part of the empire their government did not allow the minorities to have education in their mother tongue but Hungarian. This led the nationalities questions continue.

Despite the all of the efforts of the Emperor Franz Joseph to keep the empire united the empire disintegrated by the end of the World War I. Even if the dynasty and specifically the emperor was seen a supra-national and became depoliticized, the national conflicts were continuing in daily politics. The depoliticization and sentimentalization of the image of Franz Joseph was also an expression of resignation from the possibility of formulating an active and effective role for the emperor in the nationalities conflicts.[18] Robert Kaan claims further that the decline of the constitutional power of the monarch was even a more disintegrating force in the Habsburg Empire than nationalism. The common allegiance of the peoples under the Habsburg rule to the sovereign was a very powerful centripetal factor in the eighteenth century. This feeling of common loyalty to the crown rapidly declined during the course of the next century, precisely during the period when the unifying force of the crown was more necessary than ever before to offset the increasing strength of the centrifugal forces in the monarchy.[19]

There was another factor of failure was the decline power of Austria-Hungary as a Great Power in the international arena. In most cases, interior success goes hand in hand with the international successes. During the era of Francis Joseph the position of a great power was much more closely related to the domestic viability of the country.[20] But the Empire began to fall behind the newly emerging circumstances. The German Empire far surpassed Austria in political and economic strength, and France also did at least in regard to the latter. Russia’s position remained basically unchanged. Italy had become a new upcoming rival, and Great Britain looked more splendid than isolated.[21] The empire had suppressed the Hungarian revolt in 1848 by the help Russia but in the Crimean War the Habsburgs took position against their saviour Russia. Thus, the Habsburgs was falling to the bottom of the list of Great Powers.

To sum up, nationalist movements were the primary problem of the Habsburg Empire throughout the nineteenth century until its final collapse. However, they did not sit and watch the occasions but to adopt the new circumstances. The idea of loyalty to the dynasty was the main cure, as they thought, to unite all the different subjects of the empire against the disintegration of all nationalities under the Habsburg crown. The depoliticization of the emperor and being above all the affiliations was useful to gain the love of population but by that the emperor was by passed for a solution as an active figure. The other thing was the division of the empire into Dual Monarchy was another obstacle. Even if the minorities’ rights were guaranteed by the Nationalities Act, this didn’t work in the Hungarian half of the empire. The division of the empire into two halves as Austrian and Hungarian made the other minorities less importance which destroyed the equalization of nations and their equal allegiance to the emperor. Lastly, the supra-national figure of the emperor was not tested whether it was bequeathed or not; because Emperor Franz Joseph ruled very long time when all of those critical events happened and died with the last days of the empire. And at the end nationalism defeated all of his enemies in Europe by the end of World War I despite all the precautions implemented by the imperial governments.


  1. Bruckmüller, Ernst, “Patriotic and National Myths: National Consciousness and Elementary Schools Education in Imperial Austria”, The Limits of Loyalty: Imperial Symbolism, Popular Allegiances, and State Patriotism in the Late Habsburg Monarchy, New York: Berghahn Books, 2009, pp. 11-35
  2. Coreth, Anna, Pieatas Austriaca, West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 2004
  3. Fichtner, Paula Sutter, The Habsburg Monarchy, 1490-1848: Attributes of Empire, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003
  4. Kaan, Robert A., “The Dynasty and the Imperial Idea”, Austrian History Yearbook, University of Minnesota: 1967, pp. 11-31
  5. Stone, Norman, “Army and Society in the Habsburg Monarchy, 1900-1914”, Past & Present, No.33 Apr., 1966, pp. 95-111
  6. Taylor, Alan John Percivale, The Habsburg Monarchy, 1809-1918: A history of the Austrian Empire and Austria-Hungary, London: Penguin Books, 1990
  7. Wheatcroft, Andrew, The Habsburgs: Embodying Empire, London: Penguin Books, 1995
  8. Wolf, Christiane, “Representing Constitutional Monarchy in Britain, Germany, and Austria”, The Limits of Loyalty: Imperial Symbolism, Popular Allegiances, and State Patriotism in the Late Habsburg Monarchy, New York: Berghahn Books, 2009, pp.199-222

[1] Anna Coreth, Pieatas Austriaca, (West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 2004), 2

[2] Robert A. Kaan, “The Dynasty and the Imperial Idea”, Austrian History Yearbook, (University of Minnesota: 1967), 22

[3] Andrew Wheatcroft, The Habsburgs: Embodying Empire, (London: Penguin Books, 1995), 247

[4] Paula Sutter Fichtner, The Habsburg Monarchy, 1490-1848: Attributes of Empire, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 103

[5] Alan John Percivale Taylor, The Habsburg Monarchy, 1809-1918: A history of the Austrian Empire and Austria-Hungary, (London: Penguin Books, 1990), 12

[6] Robert Kaan, 20

[7] Robert Kaan, 24

[8] Christiane Wolf, “Representing Constitutional Monarchy in Britain, Germany, and Austria”, The Limits of Loyalty : Imperial Symbolism, Popular Allegiances, and State Patriotism in the Late Habsburg Monarchy, (New York : Berghahn Books, 2009), 210

[9] Christiane Wolf, 210-11

[10] Christiane Wolf, 212

[11] Andrew Wheatcroft, 281

[12] Andrew Wheatcroft, 281

[13] Andrew Wheatcroft, 281

[14] Andrew Wheatcroft, 281

[15] Ernst Bruckmüller, “Patriotic and National Myths: National Consciousness and Elementary Schools Education in Imperial Austria”, The Limits of Loyalty : Imperial Symbolism, Popular Allegiances, and State Patriotism in the Late Habsburg Monarchy, (New York : Berghahn Books, 2009), 13

[16] Paula Fichtner, 105

[17] Norman Stone, “Army and Society in the Habsburg Monarchy, 1900-1914”, Past & Present, No.33 (Apr., 1966), 97

[18] Christiane Wolf, 123

[19] Robert Kaan, 25

[20] Robert Kaan, 27

[21] Robert Kaan, 27

Ahmet İlker Baş