The Unification of Austria: German Exclusion & Creation of Austria-Hungary

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  • 0:02 Unification of Austria
  • 0:36 Early Modern Austria
  • 2:37 Austria-Hungary
  • 5:06 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore how Austria was excluded by Prussia and the other German states from the new German Confederation, as well as the steps it took to maintain its international influence, including the eventual creation of Austria-Hungary.

Unification of Austria

No one likes to be excluded. Whether it's being cut from a team or not invited to a friend's party, being consciously left out is always a bit of a downer. While not making the basketball team may sting for a while, in the 19th century an entire country was forever cut out of a nation it had long considered itself a part of! In the scramble to unite the German lands in the mid-19th century, Austria got forced out of any resulting German state after a war with Prussia in 1866. Just like a cut player who forms his own team, Austria was forced to form its own German-speaking country.

Early Modern Austria

Austria was part of the Holy Roman Empire since its beginning in the Early Middle Ages. By the beginning of the Early Modern period, the Austrian ruling family, the Hapsburgs, traditionally controlled the emperorship. After the Thirty Years' War ended in 1648, the emperorship lost most of its traditional power over the affairs of the other German states, especially in matters of religion. As a result, the Austrian Hapsburgs began focusing on taking firmer control of the territory it controlled immediately surrounding Austria. By the beginning of the 18th century, Austria directly controlled many of the provinces immediately surrounding its traditional home in Austria, including Silesia, Bohemia, Moravia, and parts of Hungary.

In the 18th century, as the influence of the central government of the Holy Roman Empire continued to wane, Austrian power in Central Europe continued unabated. However, instead of concentrated on the emperorship, its power was now concentrated in its traditional lands in South-Central Europe. Meanwhile, without a strong power in the form of the Holy Roman Emperor, a similarly strong state rose in opposition to Austria in the northern German lands: Prussia. In fact, the two burgeoning German countries fought two wars in the middle of the 18th century, the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years' War, in which Austria lost Silesia to Prussia.

The two states were both conquered by Napoleon in the early 19th century and, after Napoleon's defeat, were the two principal powers of the German Confederation that was formed in 1815. Austria and Prussia struggled diplomatically with one another for dominance of the confederation. Prussia was the first to escalate the conflict between the two when Prussia refused Austrian troops entry to cross Prussian territory and subsequently declared war on Austria in 1866. Despite having the support of most of the confederation, Austria was badly beaten by the Prussians, who were better trained and better equipped. After Austria's defeat, Prussia formed a new German Confederation that specifically excluded territories directly ruled by Austria.


Exclusion from the new Prussia-controlled German Confederation left Austria as the odd German state out. Its traditional power base in Central Europe was now largely wrested from it by Prussia, leaving Austria with only the territories it directly controlled. In addition, the conflict with Prussia had left the Austrian treasury depleted. As a result, Austria turned its diplomatic attentions to the states and territories outside of the reach of the new German Confederation. For example, Austria had controlled parts of Hungary since Austria's rise to regional prominence in the 17th century, and those parts had been a continual source of intermittent rebellion against the Austrian monarchy.

Instead of opting for a costly military campaign, which would have cost enormous sums of money, the Austrian Emperor, Francis Joseph, negotiated with the Magyar families which had traditionally controlled Hungarian lands. In 1867, the two parties signed the Ausgleich (literally meaning 'The Compromise'), which proclaimed Francis Joseph as King of Hungary and granted him control of all of the territory under Hungarian control.

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