STRICTLY, Austria designates a nation; loosely it may stand for the empire of which Austria was the head. Formally, till 1806, this was the Holy Roman Empire, which had included Germany, Bohemia, Poland, Hungary, and parts of Italy and France. But nationalistic aims had so weakened Imperial allegiance that what now (1756) survived was really an Austro-Hungarian Empire, embracing Austria, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola, the Tirol, Hungary, Bohemia, the Catholic archbishoprics of Cologne, Trier, and Mainz, diverse and varying parts of Italy, and, since 1713, the formerly Spanish, now Austrian, Netherlands—approximately the Belgium of today.
Hungary, with a population of some five million souls, was proudly feudal. Four fifths of the soil were owned by Magyar nobles, and were tilled by serfs; taxes fell only upon the peasants and the German or Slav burghers of the towns. The new empire had had its legal birth in 1687, when the Hungarian nobles renounced their ancient right of electing their king, and acknowledged the Hapsburg emperors as their sovereigns. Maria Theresa, following Bourbon strategy, invited the leading Hungarian magnates to her court, gave them offices, titles, and ribbons, and lulled them into accepting Imperial law for their domains, and Vienna for their capital. In generous response the Empress commissioned Lukas von Hildebrandt to draw up plans for governmental buildings in Buda; the work was begun in 1769, and was renewed in 1894, giving the old capital one of the most impressive royal structures in the world. Rivaling the Queen, rich Hungarian nobles built lordly châteaux along the Danube or in their mountain retreats; so Prince Pal Esterházy built a family seat at Eisenstadt (1663-72), and Prince Miklós József Esterházy built in Renaissance style, some thirty miles away, the new Schloss Esterházy (1764-66). Here were 126 guest rooms, two great halls for receptions and balls, a rich collection of art, and, nearby, a library of 7,500 volumes, and a theater with four hundred seats. Around the palace a vast swamp was transformed into gardens decorated with grottoes, temples, and statuary, with hothouses, orangeries, and game preserves. Said a French traveler: “There is no place—perhaps excepting Versailles—that equals this castle in splendor.” Here came painters, sculptors, actors, singers, virtuosi; here, for a full generation, Haydn conducted, composed, and longed for a larger world.
Bohemia, which is now the Czech part of Czechoslovakia, did not fare so well under Maria Theresa’s rule. It had withdrawn from history after the Thirty Years’ War, its national spirit broken by foreign rule, and by a Catholic creed imposed upon a people that had once known Jan Hus and Jerome of Prague. Its eight million inhabitants suffered the wounds of war in the repeated conflicts between Prussia and Austria, and its historic capital changed hands again and again as its alien Queen passed from defeat to victory to defeat. Bohemia had to content itself with an independence of culture and taste; it developed its own composers, like Georg Benda, and Prague distinguished itself by giving a hearty reception to the première of Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1787), which Vienna later damned with faint applause.
In the Austrian Netherlands the struggle of local dignitaries to retain their traditional authority was more successful than in Bohemia; it was to cloud with tragedy the last days of the “revolutionary Emperor.” Those seven provinces—Brabant (which included Brussels, Antwerp, and Louvain), Luxembourg, Limburg, Flanders, Hainaut, Namur, and Gelders—had an ancient and prestigious history, and the nobles who ruled their four million souls were jealous of the privileges that had survived so many centuries of trial. “Society” displayed its fashions, gambled its gains, and sometimes drink the waters, as well as the wines, at Spa in the neighboring episcopate of Liége. The flower of that society in this age was Prince Charles-Joseph de Ligne, whom Brussels gave to the world in 1735. He was tutored by several abbés, “only one of whom believed in God”; he himself was “devout for a fortnight”1 in this strongly Catholic country. He fought with distinction in the Seven Years’ War, served Joseph II as counselor and intimate friend, joined the Russian army in 1787, accompanied Catherine the Great in her “progress” to the Crimea, built himself a luxurious château and art gallery near Brussels, wrote thirty-four volumes of Mèlanges, impressed even the French with the perfection of his manners, and amused the cosmopolitan circles of Europe with his philosophic wit.*
It was this complex empire, stretching from the Carpathians to the Rhine, which for forty years submitted to one of the great women of history.