The richest, most prestigious, and long most powerful component of the Empire was the far-flung complex of lands comprising the hereditary possessions of the Austrian Habsburg dynasty. These were the territories the Habsburgs held by their own dynastic right – the “power-base of their house” [Hausmacht]. They possessed them independent of their status as German emperors, which they enjoyed through election by the Empire’s seven (later, eight) electoral princes, who could replace them, when the imperial throne fell vacant, with a representative of another dynasty. This happened briefly (and, since the Habsburgs’ fifteenth-century accession to the emperor’s throne, uniquely) in 1740-45, when Charles VII of the Bavarian ruling house held the imperial office, though without lasting advantage to his lineage.
The Habsburgs’ German lands included Austria and scattered holdings in southwest Germany. They ruled as hereditary kings in adjoining Bohemia, a rich land with a Czech-speaking majority, but also with a powerful German-speaking minority entrenched in the landlordly, churchly, courtly-administrative, and urban upper classes. Their powers as kings of the vast and multi-national kingdom of Hungary, downstream on the Danube from Austria, they could only hope to exercise profitably once the Ottoman Turkish occupation of the greater part of that land ended, in 1699, through the Austrian army’s triumph over its long and bitterly fought Muslim foe.
In the eighteenth century, Austria gained possession of the southern Netherlands and, in Italy, of Lombardy and Venetia, including Dalmatia on the eastern Adriatic coast. As a cynical participant, alongside Prussia and Russia, in the partitions of Poland, Austria acquired the large province of Galicia, inhabited by Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews. Austria also annexed the Romanian-Ukrainian province of Bukovina. Against these gains was the aforementioned painful loss of Silesia, once part of the Bohemian crown. Habsburg policy was rebuffed in its efforts in 1777 to trade the southern Netherlands for Bavaria, where the ruling dynasty had died out.
Austria’s strategy for ruling its highly disparate lands was, firstly, to sustain, or reimpose, Catholic religious orthodoxy, aided by the educational and cultural policies of the clergy, especially the Jesuit order. The chief aim was to mold the mentality and thus secure the loyalty of the local aristocracies. Secondly, the Habsburgs relied on co-governance of their various lands together with the provincial elites: landed nobility, high churchmen, and burgher oligarchs. This approach entailed acceptance of the continued functioning of provincial parliaments or estates, along with their semi-autonomous executive committees. Thirdly, the Habsburgs relied on their military power which, concentrated in one of Europe’s great armies, had won widely acclaimed glory in the Turkish wars.
Prior to its battlefield duel with Prussia in the mid-eighteenth century, Austria did not emulate its Protestant rival in ratcheting up permanent taxation and building the military-bureaucratic infrastructure of the absolutist state. It seemed safe to assume that Austria’s population, several times larger than Prussia’s, assured it soldierly primacy, among other advantages. But defeat at the hand of Frederick the Great led the Habsburg rulers, Maria Theresa and her sons Joseph II and Leopold II, to pursue absolutist-style bureaucratic centralization, fiscal escalation, army expansion, and state-driven economic growth. The logic of state-strengthening reform eventually called for the confiscation of certain churchly incomes to the state’s advantage, the introduction of religious toleration to promote Enlightenment culture and the spread of entrepreneurial sub-cultures of Protestants and Jews, the abolition of juridical serfdom, and the limitation of feudal rents owed to landlords by subject villagers.