Outbreak of the war
End of the war

The multinational empire – nationalism vs. the unified state

The last decades of Emperor Franz Joseph’s rule were marked by conflicts between the various nationalities within the Habsburg Monarchy. The competing national demands were increasingly incompatible with the idea of a supranational Austria-Hungary.

The ethnic diversity of the Habsburg Monarchy is clearly reflected in the 1910 census. The statistical accuracy is misleading in places because the categorization was based in the Austrian half of the empire on Umgangssprache or commonly used language and in Hungary on Muttersprache or native language. Despite this imprecision, the following language groups may be discerned.

The largest language group was German speakers with 12 million or 23.4 per cent of the total population. Some 10 million people, 19.6 per cent, indicated Hungarian as their native language. In third place was Czech with 6.4 million speakers (12.5 per cent), followed by Polish with 5 million (9.7 per cent). A further 4.4 million or 8.5 per cent were listed as speaking Serbo-Croat, which today would be subdivided into Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian. Ukrainian, or Ruthenian in the old Austrian diction of the time, was cited by 4 million people (7.8 per cent) as their commonly spoken language and Romanian by 3.2 million (6.3 per cent). The three smallest language groups were Slovakian with 2 million (3.8 per cent), Slovenian with 1.3 million (2.4 per cent) and finally Italian with 0.8 million speakers (1.5 per cent). A further 2.3 million people (4.5 per cent) claimed to speak none of the officially defined ‘customary languages’ of the Monarchy.

Whereas the two largest ‘nation states’ – the German Austrians and, since the Compromise with Hungary in 1867, the Magyars – sought to protect their political primacy and privileges, the other ethnic groups were mainly concerned to achieve cultural and political equality.

The various social strata experienced different forms of national inequality, injustice and repression, which gave rise to a series of political crises. The struggle for national rights in the various parts of the Monarchy focused on education and the question of the official language. The intensity and radicalism with which these conflicts were fought steadily eroded belief in the viability of the 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/Urbanitsch, Peter  (Hrsg.): Die Habsburgermonarchie 1848–1918, Band III: Die Völker des Reiches (2 Bände), Wien 1980

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.

  • Aspect

    The Habsburg empire

    Austria-Hungary had an extremely diverse state structure. At the start of the First World War it was a major power in decline. Social and political problems and the dominant nationality conflicts shook the empire to its foundations. At the same time, the Monarchy represented an enormous cultural region in which the Habsburg empire flourished in spite of the political stagnation.


  • 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.