Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History. Lecture 4: Hungary and the limits of Habsburg authority

Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History

Twenty-FIve Lectures on Modern Balkan History (The Balkans in the Age of Nationalism). List of lectures. – Humanities Commons (

Lecture 4: Hungary and the limits of Habsburg authority


The previous lecture tried to explain both the strengths and the shortcomings of the Ottoman Empire in terms of the principles behind it. In the case of Turkey, those principles were dynasty, religion and military prowess.

This lecture tries to do the same for the Habsburg Monarchy, also known at various times as the Austrian Empire and Austria-Hungary. Once again, this was a complex state organized along lines very different from those of a modern nation-state. In the case of the Habsburgs, the three operating principles were the dynasty, class and reform. These three pillars of Habsburg statecraft require careful description but when that is done we should see (once again) some clues that explain both the early success and the later failure of an empire.

Prior to 1800, those parts of the Balkans that were not possessions of the Ottomans belonged to the Habsburg Empire. As indicated in Lecture 3, it is common to regard these two empires as opposites: Eastern and Western, Muslim and Catholic. At the same time they shared many traits and above all this one: both were multi-national empires, made up of numerous ethnic groups and governed without much regard for the political expression of national identity.

In 1780 the population of the Habsburg lands included:

  • 5.6 million Germans (mostly in Austria)
  • 3.4 million Hungarian Magyars
  • 2.5 million Czechs in Bohemia
  • 2 million Walloons in soon-to-be-lost Holland
  • 1.8 million Italians in the districts of the north
  • 1.6 million Romanians in Hungarian Transylvania
  • 1.2 million Slovaks
  • 1 million Poles (mostly in Galicia)
  • 900 thousand Croats
  • 700 thousand Serbs, descendants of exiles along the Turkish border
  • 350 thousand Jews, mostly from Poland
  • 120 thousand Gypsies, and
  • smaller numbers of Slovenes and Vlachs.

At one time, the Habsburg family domains had been even farther-flung including the Netherlands, Spain and the Spanish possessions in the New World.

The first principle: the dynasty

Rather than conceal this ethnic diversity, the Habsburgs embraced it. When every national group was a minority, only the person of the Emperor united the country. The official “Great Title” of the Emperor Francis in 1806 gave equal time to all his possessions, large and small. Francis was “Emperor of Austria; King of Jerusalem, Hungary, Bohemia, Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Galicia, and Ludomiria; Archduke of Austria; Duke of Lorraine, Salzburg, Wurzburg, Franken, Styria, Carinthia and Carniola; Grand Duke of Cracow; Prince of Transylvania; Margrave of Moravia; Duke of Sandomir, Masovia, Lublin, Upper and Lower Silesia, Auschwitz and Zator, Teschen and Friule; Prince of Berchtesgaden and Mergentheim; Princely Count of Habsburg, Goritz and Gradisca; and Margrave of Upper and Lower Lausitz and Istria.” Some of these possessions were later lost — notably those in Germany and Italy — and other lands were added, including Bosnia.

The Habsburg Empire was not primarily a Balkan country. Only Transylvania, Bosnia and perhaps Croatia consistently are regarded as Balkan by most historians. Hungary is as Central European as it is Balkan, but Transylvania and Croatia were parts of royal Hungary and it is impossible to make sense out of their history without knowing something of Hungary. In turn, Hungary was part of the Habsburg domain for five centuries and events there make little sense without the wider context.

The Ottomans gained their lands by military success, but the Habsburgs more often gained theirs by the highly dynastic device of fortunate marriage (“Tu, felix Austria, nube” — you, happy Austria, marry — was a dynastic slogan). The first Habsburg to rule over lands in the “East” (the origin of the name “Austria”) was Count Rudolph the First who took the land around Vienna away from the King of Bohemia in 1278. During the Middle Ages the Habsburgs fought with other royal houses for control of Bohemia, Poland and Hungary. The magic moment for the Habsburg dynasty came in 1526 and involved the same Battle of Mohacs that turned Hungary into an Ottoman province. Prior to that time Ferdinand Habsburg married Anne, the daughter of Vladislav II, King of Hungary and Bohemia. At the same time, Ferdinand’s sister Mary married Vladislav’s son Louis II, King of Hungary (and thus also King of Croatia). Louis II died at Mohacs without leaving a male heir. Because his sister Anne could not come to the throne under the laws of succession, her husband Ferdinand Habsburg added Hungary, Bohemia and Croatia to his realms. After 1526 the Habsburgs were the most powerful ruling house in Central Europe and remained in control of those countries until 1918.

The second principle: class

If dynasty was the first principle behind the Habsburg system, the second principle was class. Such a large country could not be ruled personally, so the Habsburgs allied with the powerful nobles in their realms. In return for loyalty these lords gained extensive power, first at the local level and later as key figures in the state apparatus.

The heads of the large noble families had historic medieval rights to meet in provincial Diets, with the power to block crown action in some domestic matters (although not in matters of state). The noble class also retained personal rights. The most important were exemption from taxes and the power to administer local affairs. Nobles exercised administrative power in two ways.

First, as landlords on their own estates they exercised complete “juris-diction” in the original sense of the word: they “spoke the law” as judges over the local inhabitants, many of whom were bound to personal service as serfs. By controlling rights to land and the labor needed to work it, these nobles also grew rich.

Second, nobles had the right to fill the administrative offices of the crown. Until the 1700s, these offices consisted only of royal executive representatives in the provinces, known variously as governors, viceroys or bans. When the state bureaucracy expanded, nobles still filled the upper offices in the various ministries and made up the officer class in the army. These nobles defined themselves by class, not ethnic nationality. Famous servants of the crown bore German names like Metternich (who was born on the Rhein and raised in the Netherlands), Slavic ones like Radetzky, Italian like Pallavicini, Magyar like Tisza, and Polish like Goluchowski.

The power of the nobility to vote on their choice of rulers remained active. In 1713, it became clear that the Emperor Charles VI was going to die without leaving a male heir. Under existing constitutional law this meant a potential competition for the throne and perhaps the separation of Hungary from the rest of the empoire. No one wanted to risk this: a similar situation in Poland had already reduced that country to the status of a pawn of Russia and Prussia. Therefore the nobles agreed to allow Charles’ daughter Maria Theresa to become emperor, under a new legal instrument called the Pragmatic Sanction. In return, the Pragmatic Sanction spelled out limits for the powers of the emperor:

a) to make all decisions in the area of foreign policy, including the power to go to war and or make peace;

b) to raise armies as necessary to defend the various provinces, subject to approval by the Diets for the extra taxes normally required to pay for them; and

c) to set financial and commercial policies, including the power to impose customs taxes and indirect domestic taxes, but not the power to directly tax the nobles.

The third principle: reform

The third recurring theme in Habsburg history is “reform.” By this I mean an essentially conservative exercise, the selective application of new ideas to improve and support the status quo in a modified form. We can point to three great waves of reform activity in Austria: first, the religious Counter-Reformation in the 1600s; second, the application of Enlightenment ideas to create an efficient but absolutist state in the 1700s; and third, the efforts at constitutional reform in the 1800s whose failure attends the collapse of the empire. This third reform period is covered in later lectures: this lecture will talk briefly about the first two periods.

The Counter-Reformation

The Catholic Church and the Habsburgs were allies, an arrangement dating from the Reformation, the Counter Reformation and the Thirty Years War. As Catholic monarchs, Habsburg rulers derived some of their authority from the Catholic Church. To strengthen that church, the Habsburgs supported Catholic reform efforts in the 1500s and became allies of the Vatican during the Thirty Years War when Protestant nobles defied Papal religious authority as well as the Habsburg emperors. The Church relied on the crown for supportive tax measures; the crown relied on Church doctrine to support the political establishment.

In the 1700s, Maria Theresa was a strong proponent of reform. In return for endowments, she wanted the Church to help build an educated, healthy (and taxable) population by running parish schools instead of monasteries. She found allies in the Jansenists, who reformed the seminaries so as to produce priests devoted to social welfare as well as simple faith. The doctrine of Josef Sonnenfels is representative: he believed the state should guide the spiritual and intellectual development of its citizens with the assistance of the Church. Despite its association with religious intolerance and censorship, Reform Catholicism generally helped to modernize Austria.

Enlightened despotism

Much of Maria Theresa’s reform ideology derived from piety. Her son Joseph II, who shared the throne with her for 25 years and ruled alone from 1780-1790, instead acted on the basis of Enlightenment ideas. While the Enlightenment did much to foster democratic ideas, Joseph was more influenced by its ideals of efficiency and central control, the tendency known as “enlightened despotism.” Born in 1741, he was educated by reform-oriented Jansenist tutors. The ideas of the rights of man and the contractual nature of government led him to believe that a ruler had responsibilities toward his subjects. Joseph II was a reformer but not a democrat. He was opinionated and dogmatic as well as abrasive, and these traits impeded his efforts.

His influence over the state is typified by the growth of the bureaucracy. Under the Pragmatic Sanction, the crown was permitted a few executive offices to run the foreign ministry, the army and the treasury, as well as appointing provincial viceroys. Maria Theresa was able to expand and strengthen these offices, and also secured the permission of the noble Diets to approve taxes every ten years instead of one year at a time. Except in Hungary, the Diets quickly faded into minor institutions. The new and enlarged bureaucracy allowed Joseph II to pursue radical extensions of rationalism and reform.

Joseph pursued a vision of a unitary — even a uniform — state ruled according to a single standard of best government. He achieved a remarkable number of radical reforms.

1) Believing that use of a single language would increase efficiency, he imposed the use of German where he could for official purposes. Except in Hungary, the German language became a compulsory subject in all schools, and the only language for the conduct of university instruction, administration, the law and the army.

2) In 1781 Joseph issued the “Toleration Patent” making Catholicism the religion of state, but permitting open worship for Calvinists, Lutherans, Orthodox Christians and Jews. Non-Catholics could now own land, enter the professions and hold posts in the civil service or the army.

3) In 1783 marriage became a civil contract, although services were still carried out by priests as agents of the state.

4) Joseph abolished six hundred orders of monks: proceeds from the sale of their lands supported parish churches, poor relief and hospitals.

5) Censorship was largely suspended in 1781 but replaced by a secret police force that was intended to halt corruption in the civil service.

6) Changes in the legal and penal codes extended the power of the state into areas previously controlled by local officials and nobles. The death penalty was abolished. Inheritance law was revised to guarantee equal shares to male and female heirs. Child labor was prohibited for those under the age of nine.

7) To promote native industry, Joseph imposed hefty duties on 200 imported products. Products imported from Hungary were subject to the same duties: the Hungarian nobles at this time paid almost no other taxes toward meeting the expenses of the state. Domestic monopolies were abolished.

8) In a measure aimed to increase economic prosperity, serfdom was partially abolished in 1781. Joseph sought to create prosperous peasants who could then pay more taxes. Peasants could now marry without their lord’s permission and appeal their lord’s judicial decisions to state courts. Peasants still owed dues and rents but could take up trades at will.

9) Joseph’s last major project would have revised the existing patchwork of taxes and tax exemptions into a single tax on land, payable by both commoners and nobles. All former peasant dues would have been replaced by a single payment to their landlords. The effect would not have been lighter taxes, but simplicity and better enforcement: revenues were expected to rise by 50%. However, when Joseph II died in February 1790 his successor Leopold cancelled the plan. The opposition of the Hungarian nobles was one reason. If we look at Hungary, we can see the limits beyond which the principle of reform could not pass.

Hungary in the 1700s

Lecture 3 argued that a few principles lay behind the successes of the Ottoman Empire and also were the basis for its later failures. The same can be said for the Habsburg Empire. I want to illustrate this point by talking about the class of Hungarian nobles, their response to reform, and the events of 1790.

When Joseph II became king, Hungary had been a Habsburg possession for 250 years but the Magyars still retained their own language, customs and laws. Recall that the nomadic Magyars conquered the Hungarian plain in the 800s and became a Catholic kingdom in the year 1000. As in other Eastern European medieval states, noble landowners kept important constitutional rights. Under the decree of 1222 known as the Golden Bull, in return for the right of taxation, the king granted special rights to all noblemen — defined as families of Magyar blood — and denied those rights to serfs. These included the right to hold office, exemption from taxes, and the right to petition for grievances. Out of this right to petition grew a representative Diet or parliament. When the royal house died out in 1301, the nobles gained the right to select (elect) their king: to secure election, monarchs had to reconfirm the rights of the noble class.

After the Battle of Mohacs in 1526, the Habsburgs inherited the right to rule the Hungarian kingdom, but in fact the land itself was under Turkish occupation and nearly depopulated. The Habsburgs controlled only a small strip of land. In that area the usual Habsburg institutions took root: a Diet, a royal governor, the bureaucracy. During the 1600s the Turks gradually gave up the rest of Hungary due to military defeat, culminating in the Treaty of Karlowitz of 1699. The Habsburgs found themselves in possession of an undeveloped, unruly land. Under Turkish rule, Hungary had grown used to religious toleration for Protestants. Protestant Magyar nobles rebelled against the Catholic Habsburgs several times over their religious rights.

In its struggles with Magyar nobles, the Habsburgs established a pattern: in times of foreign war the crown conceded rights to the nobility, and in times of peace tried to take them away, often triggering revolts. After the decisive victory of 1699, the Habsburgs imposed direct taxes and a military draft on the residents of Hungary, nobles and peasants alike. When Austria went to war with France in 1703, the nobles revolted and forced Emperor Charles V to restore the old system of noble privileges, through a treaty called the Peace of Szatmar of 1711. 1711 was the last year of major warfare in Hungary: modern Hungarian history and the story of the revival of the country begins at that time.

A sixth of Hungary’s three million inhabitants died during the Szatmar revolt of 1703-1711. Combined with the effect of Turkish misrule, this meant that the country was half empty. Now the country filled up with new settlers: Ruthenians, Slovaks and Germans as well as Magyars returning from the Habsburg-ruled zones. By 1780 the Magyars had become an ethnic minority in the Hungarian plain, amounting to only a third of the population of five million (another five million people lived in Croatia and Transylvania, and Magyars also were a minority in those places).

About five percent of the population exercised Hungarian noble rights: that is, they were adult men who claimed historic class privileges.

In our modern view, class and national identity are separate aspects of identity. For Hungary’s nobles, the two theoretically were synonymous. To be a citizen of the political Magyar “nation” was identical with nobility. These nobles claimed medieval rights, having forgotten their own recent elevation to noble status (the ancient nobility mostly died on the battlefield of Mohacs in 1526, and the Habsburgs then created new nobles from surviving landowners and officers in the army). Their rights were these:

1) habeas corpus, that is, freedom from arrest and imprisonment without due cause;

2) free ownership of their land, that is, without taxes;

3) exemption from service to the state except for military service in war; and

4) the “jus resistendi,” the right to use force to resist royal infringements on the constitutional guarantees of the Golden Bull of 1222. Out of this right the Hungarian Diet claimed power to confirm the Austrian candidate as king of Hungary, to elect the royal governor (the “palatin”), to consent to the small number of taxes in place, and to legislate on other matters of autonomous domestic rule; in times of crisis, the same right was used to justify armed revolts.

The counties were the basis of administration: they were small (fifty miles across) and numerous (some seventy in all). The Hungarian county system decentralized many government functions and thus placed administrative power in the hand of local nobles. At the same time, nobles controlled the lives of peasants on their manors. The landlord acted as both policeman and judge, without appeal. Peasants paid taxes and also owed 104 days’ unpaid labor (“robot”) per year on the noble’s personal land (52 days if the peasant brought along a plow horse or an ox). Peasants could not leave the manor without consent (though many tried to reach the cities, where Germans and other newcomers lived under other laws). Peasants could not bear arms.

After peace came in 1711, these rights created a boom time for noble landowners. Growing towns and the Austrian border garrisons created a strong demand for grain, and landlords were in a position to raise grain very profitably. Peasants on the other hand lived in misery: while Western European peasants had shaken off medieval burdens, the peasants of Eastern Europe underwent the so-called “second serfdom” as energetic nobles reimposed forgotten feudal dues. The Hungarian towns stagnated: they paid a disproportionate share of taxes and were at the same time bypassed in the grain trade, when nobles sold directly to the state or for export to Western Europe. At the same time importation of cheap imported Western industrial goods ruined the traditional guilds and crafts. In 1790 Vienna had 200,000 inhabitants but Debrecen, the largest city in Hungary, had only 30,000.

A split developed between great landlords who made large profits and lesser nobles who did not. The great nobles became involved in the wider empire. They sent their sons West to schools in Vienna and brought artists and musicians East to enrich their lives (the composer Joseph Haydn was an employee of the Eszterhazy family). When Maria Theresa and Joseph II offered them important posts at court, the great magnates accepted. They came to have less and less connection with Hungarian life: they spoke French and German in Vienna, Latin at the Diet, and Magyar only when dealing with their peasants.

Meanwhile, the lesser nobles stayed home and became the leaders of the new Hungary. They consisted of the so-called “bene possessionati” (those with middle sized holdings), and their allies the poor “sandal wearing” nobles for whom legal claims of nobility were the only way to avoid sinking into the mass of rural peasants. These lesser Hungarian nobles had a very different encounter with the wider world of the 1700s. The grain trade and the economic boom hurt them. When they listened to outside ideas, they preferred French Enlightenment authors like Rousseau and Voltaire, with their messages about resistance to unjust authority and rights of political discussion. Many lesser nobles wrote political pamphlets in imitation of the French: they read and supported weekly newspapers, first in Latin and German (since 1707) and later in the Hungarian language. The first Magyar language newspaper was published in 1780, part of thereaction to Joseph II’s policy of Germanization. Even though it had only 500 subscribers in 1789, such a newspaper fostered the exchange of ideas among like-minded people in all the counties and reinforced Hungarian national identity by its use of the local language.

Class vs. reform

Joseph II’s enlightened reforms threatened the interests of these increasingly self-aware Magyars: the two principles — class and reform — could not be reconciled in Hungary. The policy of Germanization offended and inconvenienced Hungarians who were used to conducting legal and administrative affairs in Latin or Magyar. Centralization of the judicial, penal and administrative systems took power away from the lesser nobles who ran the county governments. Changes in the tax and customs systems were objectionable on two grounds. First, they seemed to place an unfair burden on Hungary that might slow economic growth. Second, they threatened the nobles’ right of tax-exemption. Finally, efforts to free the serfs alienated both rich and poor Magyars. Rich nobles feared losing the free labor that supported their profits on the estates and their palaces in the city. Poor nobles feared losing the legal distinction between “sandal-clad” nobles and mere peasants.

The Magyar revolt of 1788-1790

In 1787, 1788 and 1789 Joseph II became entrapped in expensive military adventures: first a revolt in the Netherlands, then a new war with Turkey. He lacked the men and the funds to carry on these wars without getting more tax revenue and more recruits from Hungary. The Hungarian nobles, already angry over many of Joseph II’s instrusions on their rights, now insisted on following the legal procedures: the national Diet would have to be called to discuss the situation and vote before money or men would appear. In 1788 Joseph II appealed directly to the county diets, but those bodies refused to consent, insisting on assembly of the national Diet. Once assembled, the Diet would have an opportunity for uncontrolled discussion and Joseph II was not ready to risk this. By the summer of 1789 a similar assembly of the French ‘parlement’ in order to raise money for the state had gotten out of control, and was well on the way to overthrowing the King of France (who was married to Joseph II’s sister, Marie Antoinette). Joseph grew discouraged, and his health was failing. In January 1790 he revoked most of his reform decrees in so far as they applied to Hungary. In February, he died and was succeeded by his brother Leopold II.

This change in rulers did not halt unrest in Hungary. Radical nobles and liberals from the cities began plotting an armed revolt. A secret delegation aproached the King of Prussia to see if he wished to be elected King of Hungary. Armed national militia units began to drill in the counties and the Hungarian regiments of the royal army received messages calling upon them to mutiny.

Several factors averted an armed confrontation. The most important was the death of Joseph II, which implied an end to reforms. Second, other military crises cooled off and Leopold was able to assemble loyal army units for potential use against any Hungarian rebellion. The more prosperous nobles had little stomach for a real war of independence. Finally, the growth of social tensions forced even the lesser nobles to seek compromise. With so much radical talk going on, the ideas of equality and political justice spread to peasant ears too, and small peasant revolts began to break out, directed against Magyar landlords. Such outbreaks could be violent and dangerous: as recently as 1784, armed peasants had slaughtered hundreds of nobles during a failed uprising. As a result, in September 1790 both sides agreed to a restoration of the status quo ante and the old constitutional rights.


The result was a stalemate, evidence that there were limits to the reforms that an even “absolute” Habsburg monarch could impose. The application of enlightenment principles in Hungary slowed to a crawl. At the same time, those enlightenment principles continued to be applied to problems in other parts of the Habsburg Monarchy. While political liberalism was slow to come to the Habsburg lands, equally important liberal ideas in the areas of economic change did move ahead in other parts of the empire.

As time passed, the cost of political privilege for Hungary became backwardness in economic and social development. As we will see later, the disparity between conditions in Hungary and in other parts of the empire led to trouble in 1848 and later. For the Habsburg Empire as a whole, the events of 1790 showed how hard it was going to be to reconcile the principles of dynastic power and noble class privilege with the third principle: enlightened reform. As the nineteenth century proceeded, this dilemma only became worse, especially when it encountered a new and competing principle of state organization: nationalism.


This lecture is a portion of a larger set of texts, Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History (The Balkans in the Age of Nationalism). 

This page created May 1996; last modified 11 January 2023.


Copyright 1996 by Steven W. Sowards

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