Hungary and the Habsburg Dynasty 1686-1790

As early as the 17th century - and in line with the strengthening of the Habsburg empire - Hungarians were forced to protect their interests not only in the face of the Turks but also against the Austrians. The tyranny applied by Austria following the expulsion of the Turks elicited unprecedented resistance, and in 1703 led to an eight-year freedom fight. The leader of the movement was Ferenc Rákóczi II, an rakoczi ferencoffspring of Transylvanian princes, who tried to render the enfeebled country combat-ready by introducing social reforms and pursuing a tolerant religious policy. Following initial successes his attempts failed, and he was forced into exile with his followers however, the long freedom fight made it clear for the Habsburgs that the monolithic exercise of power on its part was just as hopeless as the aspirations for full independence on the part of the Hungarian. Laws passed in 1714 and 1715 guaranteed constitutional independence for Hungary and the return of the privileges of the nobility.

The relative calm, technical progress and an agrarian upswing in coming decades were enough to ensure the Hungarian nobility's support in defending the Habsburg empire when Maria Theresa (1740-1780) relied on their help in the Austrian war of succession.

Maria Theresa and her son Joseph II (1780-1790) belong among the more striking representatives of European enlightened absolutism. They intended to modernize and strengthen the empire by engaging in more proficient public administration, by pursuing an economic policy relying on scientific progress, and a more humane social policy - and in the case of Joseph II by introducing anticlerical measures. By espousing such ideas Maria Theresa ignored the Hungarian national assembly from the 1760s, and issued decrees to introduce economic and social policy reforms - for instance on regulating the burdens on serfs, and public education. The more radical Joseph II began his rule by dissolving monastic orders and withdrawing censorship /that is the right to supervise and veto the publication of material/ from the church, but his famous decree on religious tolerance permitted others than just Roman Catholics to take up office. These measures elicited the resistance of the Catholic hierarchy, and his plans for tax reform brought strong opposition from a Hungarian nobility aggrieved by the curtailing of ancient rights. His rigid stance in ignoring the constitution and introducing a centralized public administrative system, and in the uniform introduction of German as an official language, finally turned his original followers, the Hungarian reformers, against him.

Having lost his social base the emperor revoked most of his reforms on his death bed. His one-time followers, the enlightened nobility, attempted to transplant from his programs all that was reconcilable with the reviving modern national awareness in the reconvened national assembly committees. However, in an atmosphere determined by the French revolution, the Habsburg dynasty gave up its aspirations for modernization and settled instead for protecting its own position.


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