Outbreak of the war
End of the war

Holding the Monarchy together: The German-Austrians as the guarantors of Habsburg statehood

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.

Nevertheless, the Habsburg Monarchy was quite definitely not a ‘German’ state, neither as it was seen from outside nor as it saw itself, as Austria was always very greatly influenced by other ethnic groups.

Accordingly, Austrian state patriotism was supranational in character. The focus was on the dynasty, though less so in Franz Joseph’s later years. Although the Emperor saw himself as a ‘German monarch’, he always maintained a neutral stance in the conflict between the nationalities.

In spite of all the diversity, the German language and culture performed a special function in the Danube Monarchy. Spread far and wide all over the Habsburg lands, the German-speakers – even when they were small in numbers, which was often the case –were a strong economic and cultural force. In addition, they acted as a link between the provinces by virtue of the fact that they staffed the outposts of the central authorities in Vienna. For a long time the German-Austrians were considered the group with the greatest loyalty to the dynasty, because of their overwhelming predominance in the Austrian hereditary domains, which with the capital of Vienna constituted the core of the Habsburg crown lands.

Although German was never the sole official language of the state, it was by far the most important language of commerce and administration. As the lowest common factor between the various language groups of the Monarchy, it also served as a lingua franca amongst the representatives of the various non-German ethnic groups.

It was most especially in the era of Liberalism (1861­–1879), when the ground was laid for a new organization of the Monarchy along centralistic lines, that German was regarded as the most important vehicle for the expression of the overall idea of the state.

The language factor thus gave the German elites a privileged position with regard to involvement in political decision-making. Furthermore, the census-based electoral law of the time only granted the vote, and thus involvement in the parliamentary system, to monied individuals from the grande bourgeoisie, from finance or industry, or from the nobility – all groups principally made up of members of the German language group. Conversely, belonging to the social elites also implied a basic loyalty to German culture and the German language.

From 1861 the Reichsrat was thus to all intents and purposes an assembly of German Liberals, in other words a selection of notables drawn from the German-speaking elites. Most of the other nationalities, which were grossly under-represented, obstructed the parliamentary system as a sign of their rejection of the goals of German-oriented centralism.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, however, this situation changed dramatically. The emancipation from German hegemony of the smaller peoples of the Habsburg Monarchy led to them rapidly catching up with their former masters and greatly expanding their political role. Their ever more confident demands disrupted the primacy of the Germans, whose dominant position was no longer taken for granted. 

Translation: Peter John Nicholson


Kann, Robert A.: Die Habsburgermonarchie und das Problem des übernationalen Staates, in: Wandruszka, Adam/Urbanitsch, Peter (Hrsg.): Die Habsburgermonarchie 1848–1918, Band II: Verwaltung und Rechtswesen, Wien 1975, 1–56

Rumpler, Helmut: Eine Chance für Mitteleuropa. Bürgerliche Emanzipation und Staatsverfall in der Habsburgermonarchie [Österreichische Geschichte 1804–1914, hrsg. von Herwig Wolfram], Wien 2005

Stourzh, Gerald: Die Gleichberechtigung der Nationalitäten in der Verfassung und Verwaltung Österreichs 1848 bis 1918, Wien 1985

Sutter, Berthold: Die Deutschen, in: Wandruszka, Adam/Urbanitsch, Peter (Hrsg.): Die Habsburgermonarchie 1848–1918, Band III: Die Völker des Reiches, Wien 1980, Teilband 1, 154–339

Contents related to this chapter


  • Aspect

    “Viribus unitis” or prison of nations?

    The multi-ethnic Austria-Hungary formed a relatively stable environment for the co-existence of the many ethnic communities. The much-vaunted “unity in diversity” was in fact overshadowed by numerous inequalities. This was illustrated above all in the differing weight of the various language groups involved in political and economic rule. These inequalities were increasingly challenged by the disadvantaged nationalities. As a result, the nationality issue dominated political affairs, leading to destabilisation of the Monarchy.


  • Development

    National politics in the multi-ethnic empire

    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.