In response to the question of national unification, many Germans considered that the logical path was for the German Confederation to be made into a federal state and then into a German nation-state. Nevertheless, the question of the role to be played by the Habsburg Monarchy was a major problem.
Through Emperor Franz II’s dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 the German-speaking lands lost a structure that had been an important, if symbolic, source of cohesion and unity.
The Germans had a special role in the Habsburg Monarchy. As the largest language group and the most highly developed in social and economic terms, they were the most important upholders of the idea of the Monarchy as a unified state.
The ‘Austrian identity’ of the German-speaking subjects of the Habsburg Monarchy was an intractably problematic phenomenon that is best described in terms of a ‘double identity’.
The German-speakers were the Habsburg Monarchy’s largest ethnic group. In addition they were the only group with a presence in all the lands of Austria-Hungary – though to varying extents.
The introduction of mandatory primary schooling from the middle of the eighteenth century resulted in broad masses of the population becoming literate. However, the schools not only provided elementary education but also imbued the young with images of national history and developed their awareness of language.
As well as differing in their language and sense of national identity, the nationalities of the Habsburg multi-ethnic state also differed with respect to their areas of settlement. While some groups lived entirely within the Habsburg Monarchy, others were spread across the borders. In some cases this factor had considerable influence on historical developments.
The source material related to the problem of the nationalities in the Habsburg Monarchy often distinguishes between ‘historic’ peoples and ‘history-less’ peoples – peoples that possessed a history and peoples that supposedly did not. This is a somewhat confusing distinction to us today: after all, if an ethnic group has existed for centuries, how can it not have a history?
It soon became clear that the western European concept of the unity of nation and state could not be applied to the Habsburg Monarchy because of its ethnic, linguistic and religious multiplicity.
In the Habsburg Monarchy it was common for the nobility and bourgeoisie to use a different language that set them apart from the peasants and urban lower classes who formed the majority of the population.