The Habsburgs

Austriae est imperare orbi universe

The novel An American in Vienna takes place between 1914-16, at the end of the six hundred year reign of one of the most famous families in Europe,the Habsburgs. The Habsburg dynasty came to an end on November 11, 1918 when the last Emperor relinquished power over the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire at the conclusion of World War I.

Traces of the monarchy can still be seen today in Vienna – A clockmakers shop taken by the author in 2010.

During the time period of An American in Vienna, the emperor (or “kaiser” in German) was Franz Josef who had become the absolute ruler of his family’s empire as an 18 year old in 1848. His 68 year reign as emperor and king is exceeded only by the 72 year reign of France’s King Louis XIV among monarchs of Europe. He ruled five years longer than Queen Victoria, a contemporary of Franz Josef for much of his life, who died in 1901. His reign was so long and his personal hold on the affection of his people at the end of his reign so great that most of his subjects could neither recall nor imagine life without him. It is the funeral of the 86 year old monarch in November 1916, during the First World War, that begins the story of An American in Vienna. You can watch excerpts of this fascinating event, with all its sad pomp and majesty as the procession makes its way through central Vienna at

The old Kaiser Franz Josef with his grandson and heir, Otto who, as of the time of publication of this book, was still alive at 99 years of age

There are many anecdotes about Kaiser Franz Josef von Habsburg-Lothringen, some of which are recounted in An American in Vienna. His image has come down through history to Americans as a reactionary; a relic of the absolute monarchs of earlier centuries. While there is little doubt that the aged Emperor considered himself to be the anointed ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire by grace of God, he was nothing if not a flexible and practical man who adapted to his times as and when necessary. For example, by 1908 the Austrian half of his empire enjoyed universal male suffrage, a constitution, a Parliament, an independent judiciary and a fairly capable, efficient bureaucracy. The Kaiser was slowly but relentlessly pushing the Hungarian half of the empire to universal suffrage as well, despite the resistance of the Hungarian aristocracy and gentry. It had not always been so.

Empress Maria Theresa, the last of the true Habsburgs

The Austrian Habsburg dynasty actually became extinct with the death of the Empress Maria Theresa in 1780. The daughter of the Habsburg Emperor Charles VI had married Francis, Duke of Lorraine (“Lothringen” in German) and thus her descendents were not and are not, strictly speaking, “Habsburgs”. The mystique of the family name was so powerful her descendents kept it alive until the present day by adopting the hyphenated moniker Habsburg-Lothingren. Yet except for when formal exactitude is required, the family was and is still known as “the Habsburgs”. Many historians regard the reign of Maria Theresa as the zenith of Austrian Habsburg power. The encryption “AEIOU”, an invention of an earlier Habsburg ruler, Frederick III, appears to this day on many buildings in Vienna; an acronym for the Latin “Austriae est imperare orbi universe” or the German “Alles Erdreich Ist Österreich Untertan” generally meaning, “Austria’s destiny is to rule the world”.

Kaiser Franz of Austria, last of the absolute monarchs of Austria

The possessions of the Habsburg dynasty, acquired over the centuries by marriage or war, accumulated, divided, re-formed, expanded and contracted much like an amoeba. Some of its component parts consisted of kingdoms, such as Bohemia or Hungary. Others comprised duchies, principalities, and counties such as Transylvania, Tyrolea, Tuscany, and innumerable others. Oddly, “Austria” was not originally an empire or kingdom, but merely an “archduchy” until 1804. In that year,Franz Josef’s grandfather, Kaiser Franz, assumed the hereditary title “Emperor of Austria” two years before his other imperial title, Holy Roman Emperor, dissolved with the collapse of that Empire in the Napoleonic Wars. It was at the Congress of Vienna, in 1815, that the possessions of the dynasty were finally amalgamated into a contiguous imperium known as “Austria” or the “Austrian Empire” that resembled the country that is the scene of An American in Vienna.

Klemens von Metternich, Chancellor of Austria and virtual dictator of the Austrian Empire between 1835-48

Kaiser Franz could be considered the last absolute monarch of the Habsburg dynasty, an autocrat whose word was truly law,until his death in 1835. A strong-willed ruler who fended off and eventually defeated Napoleon Bonaparte of France in a nineteen year struggle;Kaiser Franz adored his little grandson, Franz Josef, whom he called “Franzl”. He died just before Franz Josef’s fifth birthday, but Franz Josef always regarded him as “der gute Kaiser Franz”; an ideal monarch, upon whom Franz Josef modeled himself in his early life. Kaiser Franz’ absolute rule, enforced by his chancellor, Metternich, was followed in 1835 by the succession of his son, Ferdinand who ruled for thirteen years until his abdication in 1848.

Emperor Ferdinand, an epileptic cripple, reigned but did not rule until the Revolution of 1848

Uncle to Franz Josef, Ferdinand suffered from severe epilepsy (with as many as twenty seizures a day), other neurological problems and a speech impediment, all which contributed to his being, viewed as “feeble-minded” in his day. Due to his illness and mental incapacity, Austria was ruled de facto by Metternich and his uncle, Archduke Louis, until uprisings, revolution and civil war broke out in 1848 leading to the virtual collapse of the monarchy. The revolutions of 1848 affected virtually every major European state except Russia, but nowhere more severely than in the Habsburg Empire. Popular uprisings in Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Venice and Milan sought an end to absolute monarchical rule. In addition, the Hungarian uprising evolved into a bid for independence, triggering a civil war. In Italy, the neighboring Kingdom of Piedmont attempted to invade and annex the Habsburg’s Italian provinces while the dynasty was incapacitated.

Prince Alfred zu Windischgrätz, the sword of the Monarchy in 1848-49 who crushed rebels in Prague, Vienna and Budapest to restore the Habsburg dynasty

A military junta essentially took control of the Empire when Metternich and Kaiser Ferdinand were compelled to flee Vienna in fear for their lives. Franz Josef, then only 17 years old, a young military officer and with no political experience, was maneuvered by his mother into position to succeed his uncle Ferdinand while the military high command slowly but systematically suppressed the revolts, essentially unsupervised and unchecked by the dynasty or anyone else.

Radetzky von Radetz, in whose honor the timeless “Radetzky March” was composed by Johann Strauss, another one of the “white generals” whose loyalty to the Habsburgs saved the dynasty in Italy

Foremost among these generals was Alfred zu Windischgrätz whose descendents appear prominently in An American in Vienna as the distant relatives of the central character, Andy Bishop. The “white” counter-revolution of the generals saved the dynasty and preserved the Habsburg Empire for another seventy years. By 1849, the revolts had been crushed by military force, the civil war ended with the suppression of Hungary and Piedmont was soundly defeated by the legendary Marshal Radetzky at Novara. Thus began the reign of the young Franz Josef.

The young Franz Josef inherited an Empire in turmoil in 1848

The reign of the Kaiser Franz Josef, the emperor depicted in An American in Vienna, can be divided into at two periods. The first was a period of absolute monarchical rule of the old style between 1850-67, propped up by the army in reaction to the revolution by “mobs”. This period ended with the disastrous defeat of Austria by Prussia at Königgrätz in 1866. The second period of his reign, between 1867-1916, was a period of constitutional and increasingly democratic rule as well as the division of the Empire into Austrian and Hungarian halves, united by a common sovereign. The Kaiser’s benign rule in this second period is what slowly endeared him to a people that had feared and even loathed his autocratic rule in the earlier era.

It is this second period of benign, constitutional rule that was nearing its end as An American in Vienna begins. This blazing sunset of Habsburg rule in Europe is considered by many to be one of the most extraordinary cultural eras of all time with its epicenter in Vienna. Its evidence and effects are still with us today. Think of the birth of modern psychiatry and psychotherapy, for example, that traces its origin to Sigmund Freud in Vienna. The amazing, art nouveau architecture inspired by such giants as Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffmann, Joseph Maria Olbrich and Adolf Loos in Vienna is on display today making the city one of the leading tourist destinations in Europe. A sample of the city’s art nouveau (Jugenstil) architecture and beauty is captured beautifully at Viennese photographer Franz Bauer’s internet site at

Viennese artists Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, Koloman Moser, and Rudolf von Alt, to name just a few, were international sensations in their day and founders of the Austrian Secession movement that dominated artistic style and thought throughout Europe and the world in the late Habsburg period. Music, for which the imperial city had always been known since the days of Hayden, Mozart and Beethoven, had a renewed burst of creativity with composers and conductors such as Gustav Mahler, Johannes Brahms, Arnold Schonberg, Johann Strauss, Jr., Fritz Kreisler, Franz Lehar, Alban Berg, Anton Webernand many, many others. Many of these famous artists, musicians, writers, architects and composers hung out at the Café Central in Vienna, which is still going strong today and which appears prominently in An American in Vienna.

The beloved Kaiser of later years whose mystique almost single-handedly held his multinational Empire together until his death

Vienna was also a hotbed of political thought and, for better or worse, it has been discovered that in the year 1913, one year before the arrival of Andy Bishop to Vienna in the novel, the Café Central played host to such figures as Theodor Herzl, Leon Trotsky, Josip Tito, Adolf Hitler and Vladimir Lenin, among others. And yet the Monarchy still had another five years to go. It is this fantastic cultural and political scene that forms the backdrop to the novel An American in Vienna. It is in this time that the last two members of the Habsburg dynasty also appear and play prominent roles.

The Café Central in Vienna today.

The Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a nephew of Kaiser Franz Josef and heir to the Austro-Hungarian thrones after the suicide death of the Kaiser’s son in 1889, is famous in history for his murder on June 28, 1914 that set in motion the events that began the First World War. Yet most people know little about him personally. There is really only one biography of him in English, Archduke of Sarajevo by Gordon Brook-Shepherd. Facts about his life can only be gleaned by painstaking research that often reveals contradictory impressions of him by his contemporaries.

The famous Archduke Franz Ferdinand whose death started World War I

He was 50 at the time of his murder. His accession to the Habsburg thrones would have been an interesting moment in the history of the dynasty and the Empire because his strong personality and reforming ideas would have either sustained his inheritance, perhaps to the present day,or ripped it apart. He was strongly for universal male suffrage in the Hungarian part of the Empire and was prepared to force it through with the army, if necessary. He was also aggressively in favor of granting his Slavic subjects rights equal to the Austrians and Hungarians in a new constitutional arrangement. He was cautious in foreign and military affairs, opposed to war with Serbia and in favor of a rapprochement with Russia who had become by then Austria-Hungary’s most dangerous enemy.

Franz Ferdinand had immense energy and courage but could be at times tactless and cold. His personality was something of a throw-back to his eighteenth century ancestor, Kaiser Josef, the emperor who rammed through so many modernizing reforms that he alienated many of the power elites of his day. Franz Ferdinand did not suffer fools gladly and yet his vision was probably exactly what the increasingly moribund empire needed in 1914. The Empire was not to get it and, indeed, within the Habsburg family and many social and political circles of Austria and Hungary, his death were regarded with some relief, notwithstanding the tragic circumstances.

On October 3, 2004 the tragic “last emperor” Karl was beatified by Pope John Paul II for his valiant but unsuccessful attempts to end World War I

The last king and emperor, Kaiser Karl, also appears as a tragic figure in history. He came to the throne in November 1916 upon the death of his great-uncle, Franz Josef, in the middle of the Great War. He was 29 years old. He died six years later, in exile, at the age of 34. This young man recognized immediately the danger posed to his country and dynasty by a continuation of the Great War but his efforts to end it were failures. Although Austria-Hungary was not defeated in war, when its ally Germany was compelled to sue for peace in 1918, the Empire collapsed from within. At the moment of truth, this gentle man could not bring himself to suppress the revolts and revolutions that broke out in Vienna, Prague, Budapest and elsewhere by the force of the bayonet. There was no Windischgrätz to restore order this time. Kaiser Karl relinquished power peacefully and retired into exile with his family, ending six centuries of Habsburg power and rule in Europe.

© 2011

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