The development of the concept of the nation is regarded as having been a formative phenomenon in modern European history. This is particularly true with respect to the Habsburg Monarchy, which had an enormous variety of languages and ethnicities, all interwoven on many different levels. While this was culturally extremely stimulating, it was a major complicating factor in the development of new nations.
The complex structure of the Dual Monarchy reflected the diverse social and ethnic realities within the empire.
Thanks to his long reign of 68 years, Franz Joseph was a determining figure of the Habsburg Empire in the last decades of its existence. In 1914, he signed the declaration of war on Serbia that triggered the First World War – a war that he would not live to see the end of.
The decline of the Ottoman Empire created a vacuum waiting to be filled by new forces. The Balkans became an unstable theatre in which the interests of the major powers clashed with the national programmes of the emergent peoples of south-eastern Europe.
The Habsburg-Lorraine dynasty formed the ideological basis for the Habsburg Monarchy, since the existence of the multi-ethnic state was primarily a product of the dynastic history of this ruling house.
In the latter days of the Habsburg Monarchy, Emperor Franz Joseph personified the imperial idea, although towards the end of his sixty-eight-year reign he was reduced more and more to an abstract symbol, a kind of father figure. His death in November 1916 left a vacuum at the head of the dynasty, which his successor Karl could no longer fill.
The Habsburg Monarchy as a state framework for the smaller nationalities of Central Europe was not seriously questioned before 1914, either internally or externally. With the outbreak of war, representatives of the nationalities initially emphasised their loyalty to the Monarchy’s war aims.
At the start of the nation-building era, the Habsburg empire was a breeding ground for the development of national concepts for the peoples of Central Europe. Later, the state framework of the Dual Monarchy was seen increasingly as an obstacle to full national development.
Nation-building was part of the emancipation by large sections of the population from feudal dependence. In line with the ideals of the Enlightenment and French Revolution, the nation – understood as a community of free citizens – was to become the sovereign in place of feudal potentates.
The Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy was created through the Compromise of 1867. The Habsburg Monarchy now had two capitals, Vienna and Budapest. The two halves of the empire were united by their common army and foreign policy. The strongest linking factor was the monarch, who personified the unity of the empire.
Vienna and Berlin became closely associated following the Dual Alliance of 1879, although the Habsburg Monarchy was the junior partner. Its dependence in terms of foreign policy became all the more clear after the political unification of Germany in 1871 made it the dominant power in Central Europe. In domestic policy as well, dependence on the Hohenzollern empire made the German element predominant in the multi-ethnic state. The German-speaking populations were split in their identification with Austria and Germany.