On 28th of July, 1867, Hungary’s King Franz Joseph, who was crowned with St. Stephen’s Holy Crown twenty days earlier in Buda, sanctified the laws the Hungarian Parliament passed on the so-called “Ausgleich” negotiations with Austria. The famous compromise of 1867, namely a political agreement between the Austrian Emperor and the Hungarian elites led by Ferenc Deák and Gyula Andrássy opened a new chapter in the history of both Hungary and Central Europe, bringing peace and economic development for the whole region.
After decades of unsuccessful revolutions, separatist movements on one side and absolutist and federalist ideas and attempts on the other, this time a dual type of state was established on the foundations of the age-long Habsburg Empire. In the deep, the Monarchy still remained a multi-ethnic historical conglomerate which at first view resembles rather a postmodern super-state than a typical 19th century empire.
The Compromise of 1867 not only re-established partially the sovereignty of Hungary, but also reorganised the other lands remained under the rule of the Habsburg dynasty, including today’s Austria, Czech Republic, South Poland and Western Ukraine. As a result of the real union established between the Cisleithanian (Austrian lands) and Transleithanian (lands of the Holy Crown) parts of the Empire, the state were governed by separate Austrian and Hungarian parliaments and governments. Unity was maintained through rule of a single head of state, the Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, and common monarchy-wide ministries of foreign affairs and defence under his direct authority. The famous K.u.K armed forces were also under the leadership of the Emperor-King as commander-in-chief until the end of the First World War.
With a territory of more than 675,000 square kilometres and with the population of more than 50 million, Austria-Hungary was one of the largest empires in Europe at the beginning of 20th century. More than a dozen nationalities composed the population, including Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, Moravians, Slovaks, Poles, Ukrainians, Romanians, Serbs, Croats, Slovenians, Bosnians, Italians, Jews, etc. In terms of religion and churches, the picture was also colourful: besides the slight majority of Roman Catholics, there were numerous Protestant and Orthodox communities all over the Empire, not to mention the significant Jewish community and the Bosnian Muslims. If we take into consideration that the compositions of religious, social and national identities were historically as diverse as possible in Central Europe, the Austro-Hungarian society might seem a strange forerunner of European multiculturalism of posterior periods.
However, living together was not always easy. The different ethnic and language groups of the Empire, one after the other, entered the main cultural and political competition of the 19th century: becoming a modern nation. Those communities, which had considerable historical experience in state-building and some basis of pre-modern nationalism, such as Germans, Hungarians, Poles and Croats enjoyed some temporary advantage over the others. It may sound surprising, but in spite of that the biggest challenge for the different national movements were not the other ones: they rather played a vital role in creating each other’s self-image and national identity. It was the Habsburg dynasty, which had to face the rising nationalisms and protect the realm of dynastic heritage.
In certain periods of time, it seemed rather impossible. In 1848 for instance, the “spring of nations”, namely the revolutions and uprisings in Vienna, in Hungary and in Italy, questioned the rule of the Habsburgs in Central Europe. While the greater German nationalism tempted strongly the German-speaking population of the Monarchy towards northwest, the Hungarian, Polish and Italian revolutionists were even ready to cease ties with the dynasty. Although the Empire itself survived the mid-century revolutionary waves, the Habsburgs had lost the competition for German Unification in the battle of Königgrätz (1866), and they also had to acknowledge the success of the Italian separatism.
In the 1860s Franz Joseph was forced to find allies in the formerly despised Hungarian elites, and with meeting their demands about self-governance and the sovereignty of Hungary, it was possible to establish the Dual Monarchy in 1867. Of course, the solution of the ‘Ausgleich’ was not so popular all over the Empire. Opposition groups and frustrated national movements, sometimes under the secret leadership of the heir himself (archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was murdered in Sarajevo in June, 1914), were ready to transform the Empire from dualism to trialism or even to federalism. Although the structure of the state had not changed very much until 1918, the tensions in the deep did not pass away and Austria-Hungary had lost somewhere in the trenches of the First World War.
Despite all the political, national and social tensions and conflicts, the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy more or less was able to fulfill its historical mission: providing some peace, economic progress, social stability and cultural blooming for decades for the multi-ethnic region of Central and Southeastern Europe. The exaggerated label of “prison of folks” has clearly much more to do with First World War propaganda than with actual history, especially if we take a look at the minority policies of the successor states dominating the region in the interwar period.