About Vienna - Your City Travel Guide
About Vienna - Your City Travel Guide
About Vienna - Your City Travel Guide

Viennese Culture


Austrian history: Habsburg dynasty

Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube! The rise of House Habsburg!

This line of medieval poetry is representative of the rise of the Habsburg Empire. It was written in the late Middle Ages at the same time when the Habsburgs transformed themselves from insignificant Swiss Counts to Holy Roman Emperors of German Nation. They were one of the most powerful dynasties of Ancient Europe.

Rudolf von Habsburg – the 13th century

But we will come to this later! Let’s start at the beginning:
In 1273 the kurfuersts (a number of counts responsible for electing the German emperor) had finally come to a decision: they had elected the rather negligible Swiss count ‘Rudolf von der Habichtsburg’ (Habsburg!) on the strength of his very insignificance. By this they expected to lose as little power of their own as possible.
However, their hopes were to be disappointed. Already in 1278 Rudolf defeated his mightiest opponent Premysl II Otakar, Emperor of Bohemia. This victory made Rudolf unchallenged Emperor of Germany and won him the lands of Austria. Viennese ‘Hofburg’ became his residency and would be the Imperial residence of House Habsburg till the end of the dynasty.

Friedrich III – the 15th century

In the 14th century the German crown was lost temporarily to the Luxemburg dynasty which was residing in Prague. Even though, Habsburg politics, which was based on marriage rather than warfare (‘Hausmachtpolitik"), was very successful. Emperor Friedrich III (died in 1493) is famous for the inscription AEIOU ("Alles Erdreich Ist Österreich Untertan", meaning: the whole world is subject to Austria) which adorned many buildings of his time.

Karl V – an empire in which ‘the sun never sets’

Only half a century later, this inscription is much less of an exaggeration: His successor Karl V (died in 1558) was Lord of an empire in which "the sun never sets".
By then, the Habsburgs where not merely German emperors but also Dukes of wealthy Burgundy (1477, today’s Low-Counties) and Kings of Bohemia and Hungary (1526) as well as Spain (1516, including half of America and the Philippines!).

Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube!

How did that happen? By warfare? By spending enormous fortunes? By diplomatic excellence? Possibly. But one important factor was dynastically smart marriage.

The Latin verse quoted at the beginning refers to exactly that: "Let others wage war, you – happy Austria – marry!"

With this enormous empire the Habsburgs also inherited a bulk of problems: There were numerous religiously motivated wars against Protestants. Esp. the Thirty-Years-War lasting from 1618 – 1648 was one of the most appalling wars in history.

For centuries the Ottomans, Islamic Turks, were a constant threat. They controlled the Balkan area and even besieged Vienna, the Habsburgs Imperial residence, twice (1529 and 1683).

The success of the Habsburg era was not least based on a strictly authoritarian sovereignty (absolutism!). Esp. Karl VI and his daughter Maria-Theresia (died in 1780) strove to perpetuate the glory of their dynasty by splendid buildings in representative baroque style. Esp. Imperial city Vienna features many imposing buildings of this time (Karlskirche, Schönbrunn castle).