A History of Austria - Part VII

1500 to 1650: Reformation & the 30-Years-War

In the years between approximately 1550 and 1700, there were two main conflicts that were very significant for Austrian history: The reformation, counterreformation and the wars that were part of or associated with the 30-Years'-War (which was rather a series of small wars from 1608 to 1638). And the wars with the Turkish Empire, that lasted until the early 18th century. The reformation had caused most of Austria′s population to convert to Protestantism.

Protestant uprisings, the Hussite Wars and finally the 30 Years War did serious harm to Austria

Even in Salzburg (not part of Austria yet, but a principality ruled by a Catholic Prince Archbishop), many peasants converted from the early 16th century on. The Habsburgs were hugely displeased about this, as they had been close allies of the pope for centuries. From around 1600, they launched a campaign called the counterreformation, which consisted of violent prosecutions and the expulsion of protestants (Salzburg expelled protestants in two waves, too).

This was accompanied by the construction of new churches and monasteries in Baroque style, just to make the point that the Catholic church was the dominant force in the country. Emperor Ferdinand II said that he would rather rule a desert than a country full of heretics (meaning: protestants).

Missionaries, of whom many were Jesuits, supported his efforts. The struggle between catholic and protestant rulers was often more about power than about religion. It got increasingly violent until a Bohemian revolt against the Emperor (two of his delegates were thrown out of a window from the palace in Prague, a very clear statement) triggered open war in 1608.

Many Austrian monasteries were decorated in elaborate Baroque to impress potential protestantsThis war continued with many interruptions until 1638, involved all German-speaking lands, much of Eastern Europe, the Swedish Empire consisting of most of Scandinavia and other associated powers. It had devastating effects, the population dropped, famines killed thousands, entire cities like Magdeburg got extinguished. The civilian population suffered terribly and the social and cultural achievements of the Renaissance were lost almost anywhere. In the end, all participating forces agreed to respect the denomination of each ruler.

The key-phrase is "huius regio, cuius religio" - whoever rules, says what denomination. This meant effectively, that a Catholic duke would lead a Catholic duchy, a Protestant duke a protestant duchy and it was nobody else′s business. The Habsburgs had tried to gain absolute power in the Holy Roman Empire (like the monarchies in England or France had it), but failed and ended with almost exactly the same situation as the one in which the war had started: ruling over their lands, most importantly Austria and Bohemia.

1500 to 1720: Wars against Turkey & Baroque boom

The second issue of the early Baroque period were the Turkish wars. After the first siege of Vienna had failed in 1529, small fighting continued especially in the Eastern part of the Habsburg lands. Finally the Turks returned with a bigger-and-better army in 1683 for the "Second Siege of Vienna". An army of the Holy Roman Empire as well as Polish forces under the command of Karl of Lothringen (Charles of Lorraine) and the Polish King Jan III Sobieski, attacked the back of the army with cavalry from the Kahlenberg mountain, causing the Turks a devastating defeat.

Prince Eugene of Savoy led the Austrian armies into victory during the Turkish Wars.

In the years that followed, the Habsburgs took advantage of the generally recovering state of affairs: The Turkish threat faded, their power was consolidated at least in Austria and Bohemia, and the population was back to being catholic. It was time to kick some Turkish butts. The Habsburgs employed several officers as rulers for their recovering armies, most notably Karl of Lothringen and Prince Eugen of Savoyen.

By 1718, the Turks had withdrawn beyond Belgrade and at least the immediate the danger was finally banned. As a consequence, the wealth in Austria increased rapidly and the Baroque age shaped the country in architecture, arts and lifestyle in a distinct Austrian way. Travelling through Austria, you will see that it is still a deeply baroque country, characterised by excessive celebrations, beauty and pleasure and yet constantly touched by a morbid fascination with vanity and death.

The Collegiate Church in Salzburg is an outstanding example of German Baroque architecture

Funnily enough, one of the best places to study baroque lifestyle and culture is in a city that wasn′t part of Austria during this time: Salzburg′s powerful and prosperous Prince Archbishops managed to stay neutral during the Thirty Years War by bribing both sides. The lucrative salt mines allowed Salzburg to bloom in baroque splendour while much of the rest of the Holy Roman Empire was in flames.

Three Prince Archbishops are particularly important: Wolf Dietrich von Raithenau, Markus Sittikus and Paris Lodron. During the first half of the 17th century, they transformed Salzburg with the aid of mostly Italian craftsmen into a Baroque gem, later called "the German Rome".

King Ian Sobieski of Poland coming to aid for Vienna during the Turkish Siege

After the defeat of the Turks and the settling of religious struggles, the Habsburgs′ power peaked once again around 1700. This is the year in which the last Habsburg of the Spanish line died and instantly a war of succession started between the German Empire and France under Louis XIV. Emperor Joseph I fought quite successfully, however, after his death his only brother Karl VI was the last of the house of Habsburg. If he had taken the Spanish heritage in addition to the German possessions, the Habsburg would have ruled over a considerable chunk of Europe.

This was something other European powers wanted to prevent, and so Karl VI faced fierce opposition. Eventually, he accepted in 1713 that he would give up Spain, but receive at least the Netherlands, Naples and Lombardy. His victory against the Turks later added the North of Bosnia and Serbia to his empire.

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Further Reading

"Austrian History in less than 1000 words"

"A Jewish History of Austria"

A Complete List of all Austrian Monarchs