All of the major monotheistic religions were represented in the Habsburg empire. In spite of the clear dominance of the Catholic Church, the Habsburg Monarchy was multi-confessional.
The Roman Catholic Church was by far the most important religious community in the Habsburg Monarchy. In 1910 there were 22.5 million Catholics in Cisleithania (79 per cent of the population) and 10.5 million in Hungary (49 per cent), where they were also the most numerous group.
The Greek Catholic Churches, which were united with Rome, had a special place in the Habsburg Monarchy, forming a kind of bridge with the orthodox Eastern Churches. The evolution of these special forms can be traced back to efforts by Catholic-dominated states like Poland (Union of Brest 1596) and the Habsburg Monarchy (Union of Užhorod 1646), which had large groups of orthodox subjects over whom they wished to have greater control also in terms of religion. The Greek Catholic Church retained the Byzantine rite and traditional church structure while recognizing the authority of the Pope. Among the Ruthenians in particular and to a certain extent the Romanians within the Habsburg Monarchy as well, the Greek Catholic clergy represented the nationalist aspirations, and church membership became a vital aspect of national awareness.
In the Austrian half of the empire 3.5 million people (12 per cent of the population) belonged to the Greek Catholic Church, along with 1.9 million (9 per cent) in the Hungarian half. In other words, 91 per cent of the population in the Austrian half and around 60 per cent of the Hungarian half of the empire recognized the Pope as their religious leader.
In spite of the dominance of the Catholic Church, the considerable regional variations should not be overlooked. While well over 90 per cent of the population in the western crown lands were Catholic, this predominance was much weaker in the south-east, where the Christian orthodox Churches played an important role. In the Austrian half of the empire orthodox Churches had 770,000 members (2.3 per cent, concentrated in Dalmatia and Bukovina), and there were 800,000 believers in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The orthodox Church was most strongly represented in Hungary with 2.9 million adherents (14.3 per cent of the total population). Among Romanians and Serbs in particular, membership of the orthodox Church played an important and distinguishing role in the formation of nation states.
The various Evangelical Churches were also of regional significance in some parts of the empire. In the Austrian half, Protestantism survived the era of the aggressive Catholic Counter-Reformation only in some pockets and underground. It was not until the Edict of Tolerance proclaimed by Emperor Joseph II in 1781 that official church structures were able to form, concentrated in a few Alpine regions and in Bohemian territories, particularly Silesia.
Whereas the Evangelical Churches in Cisleithania – notably adherents of the Augsburg Confession – had only around 600,000 members (2 per cent of the population), there was a considerably larger following in Hungary. Luther’s teachings were widespread particularly among the Germans and Slovaks and were an important component of their cultural identity. The Evangelical Church of Augsburg Confession had 1.3 million members in Hungary (6 per cent of the population). A specific feature of the confessional situation in Hungary was the great significance of Calvinism among the Magyars, accounting for 2.6 million members (13 per cent of the population). The centre of the Evangelical Church of Helvetian Confession was in the Hungarian Plain around Debrecen.
The Jews formed a significant group within the Habsburg Monarchy. Although accounting for only 4.4 per cent of the population, they made an exceptional contribution to cultural and economic development. There was a marked east-west divide in terms of distribution. In the Alps, Danube and Adriatic regions they were of little statistical relevance, with significant communities only in Vienna and Trieste. They were somewhat more strongly represented in the Bohemian territories, where there was a dense network of communities. Apart from the historically important community in Prague, Judaism was also established in small rural communities. There was a similar distribution in Hungary but with larger numbers. The centre of Hungarian Judaism was in Budapest. Most of the Jews in the Habsburg empire were concentrated in Galicia and Bukovina, where they formed a significant proportion of the population, up to 40 per cent in some regional areas.
The Jews in the Habsburg Monarchy formed an extremely heterogeneous group, however. The established Jewish bourgeoisie in the cities had assimilated with the mainstream population and were culturally and economically integrated. In the eastern parts of the empire, by contrast, religion had a huge influence on the lifestyle and above all on the identity of the vast Jewish population. The traditionally old-fashioned shtetl life and the Yiddish language were the characteristic features of the ‘Ostjuden’. The Sephardic communities, particularly in Bosnia and Herzegovina, formed a special case in the otherwise largely Ashkenazi Judaism of the Habsburg Monarchy.
The Muslims were a regional phenomenon, having become citizens of the Habsburg Monarchy through the occupation (1878) and later annexation (1908) of Bosnia and Herzegovina. There were over 600,000 Sunni Muslim in this province, who formed around one third of the population. In the Monarchy as a whole, the Mohammedans, as they were called at the time, accounted for just 1.2 per cent of the population. The attempt to integrate Islamic structures in the administrative and legal system of the Danube Monarchy offers an interesting insight into the possibilities for integration in this multinational state.
Translation: Nick Somers
Rumpler, Helmut: Eine Chance für Mitteleuropa. Bürgerliche Emanzipation und Staatsverfall in der Habsburgermonarchie [Österreichische Geschichte 1804–1914, hrsg. von Herwig Wolfram], Wien 2005
Rumpler, Helmut/Seger, Martin (Hrsg): Die Habsburgermonarchie 1848–1918, Band IX/2: Soziale Strukturen, Wien 2010
Wandruszka, Adam (Hrsg.): Die Habsburgermonarchie 1848–1918, Band IV: Die Konfessionen, Wien 1985