In the days when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five-Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, the Holy Roman Empire was the greatest unifying force in all of Western Christendom, under the Emperorship of Charles V. Despite various attempts to heal the rift between Roman Catholics and Protestants, most notably at a meeting (Diet) in 1541 at Regensburg, Germany, the theological split in Europe put the Holy Roman Empire under severe stress. By 1648, some 130 years after Luther’s protest at Wittenburg, the unity of the Christian West in Europe lay in tatters. What superseded the Holy Roman Empire was the emergence of a single royal family headquartered in Vienna, Austria: the Habsburgs.
My wife and I spent two nights in Vienna during our trip to Europe in 2022. The presence of the Habsburgs’ influence could be felt everywhere.
The Habsburgs left Europe a checkered legacy. The Thirty Years War, which ended in 1648, had divided Central Europe into many autonomously governing districts. But the Habsburg family remained the primary power broker in the region, adored by some, despised by others. On the one hand, what emerged from the 1648 Peace of Westphalia was a renewed effort to reinvigorate the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation in the various lands ruled by the Habsburgs, and their networks of ruling families, particularly in lands surrounding Vienna, Austria. Along with that renewed Catholicism came the suppression of Protestantism, particularly in Bohemia, and its most prominent city, Prague.
The Habsburgs managed to rule a large chunk of Europe until its final breakup, at the end of World War One. Names like Ferdinand, Leopold, and Maria Theresa pepper the family tree and made their mark on the world (it is a rather complex family tree!). Staunchly Roman Catholic, they were great patrons of the arts. Names like Wolfgang Mozart, Franz List, and Ludwig van Beethoven all gained measures of support from the royal family.
The royal family built some of the most impressive buildings and estates in Vienna. The standout features are the Hofburg Palace, the Habsburg winter estate near the city center of Vienna, and the Schönbrunn Palace, their summer estate on the outskirts of Vienna, both of which were on our tour.
The Habsburgs also formed the greatest line of defense against invasion from the Turks, from the Islamic East. For several hundred years, on and off, the Turks laid siege to Vienna, seeing that this city on the Danube River was the gateway to Western Europe. But in 1683, the last and greatest siege was broken, and the Turks were driven back to their territories around Istanbul, in modern day Turkey. In the wake of the upheaval of World War One, the situation is much different now, but the signs of the medieval Austrian/Ottoman conflict remain. At St. Stephens’s Cathedral, one can look up one of the spires and find a cannon ball lodged in the stone, a memory recalling the great battle that took place on September 11, 1683 (Unfortunately, the ball is up so high, I could not get a good photo of it)….. For the curious, the date of the attack on the World Trade Center, in New York City, on September 11, 2001, was not picked by accident. It was intentionally set on that date to recall the events from this final siege of Vienna, centuries ago.
What was most interesting about our recent trip to Europe was the different responses I got from tour guides when I asked about the legacy of the Habsburg family. In Vienna, glowing reports about the Habsburgs were mentioned as we toured the various palaces that the family owned. In contrast, in Prague, the name of the Habsburg family was largely synonymous with oppression.
Today, with few exceptions, glorious monarchies like the Habsburg family are pretty much a thing of the past. Along with the decline of such monarchies, the Christian influence that animated the spiritual life of the family and their supportive subjects, or infuriated those who despised their enforcement of their religious convictions, has been effectively replaced by secularism. For example, in nearly every church in Vienna that I visited, curious tourists far outnumbered reverential worshippers. Love ’em or despise ’em, the Habsburg family has left a multiple centuries long influence across Central Europe.
Yet despite the conflicted legacy the Habsburgs’ left, they knew how to build some immensely grand buildings, and beautiful gardens to surround them, particularly at the Schönbrunn Palace.