Austria Table of Contents

The Napoleonic Wars

What began as a retrenchment in Austria's reform program ground to a complete halt when the international crisis caused by the French Revolution engulfed Europe in a generation of war. Meeting in Potsdam in 1791, Leopold II and the king of Prussia jointly declared that the revolutionary situation in France was a common concern of all sovereigns. Although the declaration did not become the framework for European military intervention in France as its authors had hoped, it set Austria and the French Revolution on an ideological collision course. In April 1792, revolutionary France declared war on Austria.

The first war lasted for five years until Austria, abandoned by its allies, was forced to make peace on unfavorable terms. Austria renewed the war against France in 1799 and again in 1805 but was swiftly defeated both times. In the otherwise unfavorable settlement after the defeat in 1805, however, Austria did receive Salzburg, a territory formerly ruled by an archbishop, in compensation for the loss of various Italian and German possessions.

Because French domination of Germany raised the possibility that Napoleon Bonaparte or one of his subordinates could be elected Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold's son, Franz II (r. 1792- 1835), took two steps to protect Habsburg interests. First, to guarantee his family's continued imperial status, he adopted a new, hereditary title, Emperor of Austria, in 1804, thus becoming Franz I of Austria. Second, to preclude completely the possibility of Napoleon's election, in 1806 he renounced the title of Holy Roman Emperor and dissolved the Holy Roman Empire.

In the final years of the decade, the German Habsburg area was swept with anti-French nationalist fervor. Erroneously believing that similar nationalist fervor throughout Germany would produce a victory, Austria declared war on France in April 1809. In the Tirol, then under Bavarian rule, the peasants, led by Andreas Hofer, rebelled and scored surprising victories before being subdued by Napoleon's forces. Elsewhere in Germany, however, nationalist feeling had little effect. Austria's defeat was swift, and significant territorial losses followed.

In the wake of this defeat, Franz appointed a new foreign minister, Clemens von Metternich, who sought reconciliation with France. He accomplished this by arranging a marriage between Franz's daughter, Marie Louise, and Napoleon, who was eager for the prestige of marriage into one of the principal dynasties of Europe and the creation of an heir. The marriage took place in the spring of 1810 but yielded little immediate return for Austria.

In 1813 Napoleon's position began to weaken. His invasion of Russia had failed, and Britain was scoring victories in the Iberian Peninsula. Both sides of the conflict began bidding for Austria's support. In August of that year, Austria broke its alliance with France and declared war. Despite generous subsidies from Britain, the final campaigns against Napoleon in 1814 and 1815 strained Austria's financial and human resources. Thus, Austria emerged as a victor from the war but in a severely weakened state.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress