From a Family Castle to Europe’s Ruling Houses:  The Hapsburg Order and the Shifting Map of Europe


            For many centuries, the name “Hapsburg” (or “Habsburg”) was virtually synonymous in Europe with “ruling family.”  Indeed, the Hapsburgs were the single most powerful clan in Europe during the continent’s monarchical period; no other family managed to place its members on such a vast array of European thrones, in such a diverse collection of lands, for such an extended period of time.  The Hapsburgs held political sway in one form or the other from the 12th century until the Treaty of Versailles concluding World War I in 1919*.  The Dutch Revolt against Spanish rule in the late 1500s was, in fact, a direct consequence of the odd acquisitions that resulted from Hapsburg dynastic machinations. 

            The Hapsburg family originated in Central Europe, with its initial power bases in what now constitute the borderlands of Germany and France (modern-day Alsace-Lorraine) and German-speaking Switzerland.  The political divisions of the modern day were of course not present during medieval times, in which Central Europe was divided crazy-quilt style into a collection of duchies and principalities loosely bound together as the “Holy Roman Empire.”  Essentially, however, the Hapsburgs were a German family (from a historically German-speaking and German-cultural region peripheral to the modern nation of Germany itself), who—chiefly through a remarkably deft use of dynastic marriages— managed to gain dominion across numerous realms in Europe.  The Hapsburgs employed an adroit mix of military demarches and crafty diplomatic maneuvers to gain advantage at crucial junctures when a dynastic succession came into question somewhere in Europe, a skill for which they were both respected and feared throughout the continent.  The family name derived from the so-called “Habichtsburg” (the Habichts—hawk’s—Burg, or castle), located in present day N Switzerland.  From the lands initially held by Otto and Rudolf IV, both counts, the Hapsburgs managed to extend their rule into Austria, northern Italy, Hungary, and Bohemia (the present-day Czech Republic and Slovakia).  As “Kings of the Germans” the Hapsburgs were able to parlay their positions into Holy Roman Emperors (in at least nominal control of a region that today encompasses much of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Italy, and Eastern Europe), and it was from here that Maximilian I, eventually to become a Holy Roman Emperor himself, undertook a fateful marriage alliance with Mary of Burgundy in 1477.  Mary’s domains included the Low Countries and some lands in what is today northern France, and Philip I—the son of Mary and Maximilian—would thereby be the ruler of both the traditional Hapsburg Central European lands and the Dutch, Walloon, and Burgundian provinces upon his maturity. 

            Philip I stretched the Hapsburg tentacles further with a marriage to Joanna of Castile in Spain, and their son—Charles V—would thus inherit a colossal territorial expanse, a yawning domain that, owing to the opportunistic and often unexpected marriage alliances of his predecessors, would combine Germany, Austria, Switzerland, northern Italy, Hungary, Bohemia, Spain, and the Low Countries under his purview.  Charles was a skillful and industrious ruler who helped to thwart the advance of the Ottoman Turks into Europe, and who exerted himself frenziedly to seize control of additional Italian lands from his rival, King Francis I of France, as well as to stem the spreading tide of the Protestant Reformation in Germany, initiated by Martin Luther in 1517.  Although Charles managed to frustrate the ambitions of the Turkish sultan Suleiman (the Magnificent) to take Vienna, and to defeat his rival Francis I, his attempts at Counter-Reformation met with limited success.  Exhausted from the unceasing travails of governing his vast realms, he abdicated and split his possessions among his sons, giving rise to the Austrian Hapsburgs in the east and the Spanish Hapsburgs in the west.  The latter, personified in Charles’s son Philip II, included not only Spain but—owing to the whims of Charles’s division—also the Low Countries as well.  Thus, the source of the Low Countries’ odd political unification with Spain, and the proximate cause of the Dutch Revolt, was the volatile mixture of Hapsburg dynastic intrigues and the rapidly disseminating Protestant Reformation, which reached the Dutch provinces from Germany in the late 1500s. 

            Ironically, the greatest expansion and securing of Spain’s New World Empire occurred under the Hapsburg kings Charles V (during whose reign Cortez and Pizarro were operating in the Americas) and Philip II, for whose family Spain was a land quite foreign from their native German domains in Central Europe.  Indeed, Charles V was born and reared in Flanders (the Flemish/Dutch-speaking portion of modern Belgium) and was regarded suspiciously by the Spaniards; Charles faced bitterness and even a revolt among his Spanish subjects because of his perceived use of Spanish revenues to fund his wars with France on the Continent.  Nevertheless, Charles eventually won the allegiance of Spain, and his son—who identified more closely with the Iberian nation— managed to extend and consolidate the country’s domains.  Thus, the geographical extent and cultural unity of Spanish-speaking Latin America today derives, in large part, from the legacy of outsider kings who traced their origins to German-speaking Central Europe.  The Hapsburg mastery of dynastic marriage, nonetheless, would also prove to be their eventual undoing in Spain.  There was substantial in-marriage among the Hapsburgs to maintain the integrity of the family bloodlines, which of course caused more and more destructive recessive (and detrimental) traits to be expressed in succeeding generations following Philip II.  Moreover, France became more and more effective in its challenges to Spanish (and Hapsburg) power, culminating in crushing defeats of Spain’s armies at Rocroi and Passaro during the Thirty Years’ War that effectively established France as Europe’s new bellwether.  The Hapsburg line itself was extinguished in Spain’s royal houses by 1700, yet it continued in Austria and Central Europe until the conflagrations of World War I altered Europe’s old order drastically.




*This is yet another respect—in addition to the establishment of Bolshevik Communism in Russia, the rise of fascism, the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and the unprecedented demographic and economic damage done to Britain, France, Belgium, and other Western European powers—that World War I so profoundly upended the institutions and political structures in Europe that preceded it.  We in the U.S.A. tend to be most familiar with the Second World War, our “good war” fought on such a massive scale, but it is WWI that was truly the most influential war of the 20th century—indeed, one of the most significant wars of the Second Millennium A.D. overall (and it, of course, made WWII inevitable).  WWI exerted tremendous effects on an incalculable number of areas and geographic regions, and many of the most intractable conflicts of the late 20th and early 21st centuries—the Cold War, the spread of Communism in Vietnam, the resentment of Arab nations toward perceived Western colonizers whom they blamed for carving up the Middle East, the unrelenting morass of Iraq—all had their origin in World War I.


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