Austria Emerges as a National Entity Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Austria emerged as a national entity after the East Mark was established as the duchy of Austria. Of the German duchies in existence in 1156, it was the only one to persist as a sovereign state through the present day.

Summary of Event

Celtic and Roman civilization in Austria was crushed when Avars Avars overran the region in the sixth century. After Charlemagne destroyed Avar power between 791 and 811, he organized the Austrian lands as the East Mark on Bavaria’s eastern frontier. The East Mark East Mark then was colonized by German settlers, chiefly from Bavaria, but Magyar invaders obliterated the East Mark’s German settlements between 898 and 955. Little survived, but German colonization resumed after Otto I defeated the Magyars at Lechfeld Lechfield, Battle of (955) in 955, confining them to the area that became known as Hungary. [kw]Austria Emerges as a National Entity (September 17, 1156) Austria Germany;Sept. 17, 1156: Austria Emerges as a National Entity[2000] Government and politics;Sept. 17, 1156: Austria Emerges as a National Entity[2000] Conrad III Frederick I Barbarossa Henry II Jasomirgott Henry the Proud Henry the Lion

The bishops of Passau and Regensburg and the monasteries of Saint Polten, Kremsmunster, and Saint Florian were instrumental in this colonizing, joining material considerations with zeal to convert pagan Slavs and Hungarians. In 973, Margrave Leopold of Babenberg Leopold of Babenberg assumed secular authority in the East Mark. Shortly thereafter, in 996, the name osterrichi (Austria) first appeared in an imperial document. Members of the Babenberg family governed the territory until the death of Frederick the Fighter in 1246. The margraves encouraged German immigration, slowly pushed the frontier eastward, and defended the territory against the Slavs and Hungarians.

The East Mark was a no-man’-land between German civilization and peripheral ethnic groups, with boundaries determined by the balance of power. By the mid-twelfth century, German settlement was halted by Hungarians who were deeply entrenched at the Leitha River. Led by Henry II Jasomirgott Henry II Jasomirgott , the margraves began emphasizing consolidation and internal exploitation. By this time, Vienna had reappeared, most unoccupied land was converted to agriculture, and more refined cultural aspects were in evidence. Thus, the East Mark’s colonial stage of development came to an end.

For a generation, Bavaria and the East Mark were disputed by the Welfs Welfs (Guelphs) and Hohenstaufens (Ghibelins), the two most powerful German families of the period. The controversy erupted in 1137, when Emperor Lothair II Lothair II died without a male heir. His daughter Gertrude had married the Welf duke of Bavaria, Henry the Proud Henry the Proud . Through Gertrude, Henry secured Saxony, the nucleus of Lothair’s possessions. Joining Saxony to Bavaria, Henry the Proud became the most powerful German prince. As duke of Spoleto, Henry’s authority also reached the gates of Rome.

Henry expected to become king of Germany in early 1138, but the princes disappointed him by electing Conrad III Conrad III , a member of the Hohenstaufen Hohenstaufens family who dominated the duchy of Swabia. Because the Hohenstaufens had often defied Lothair and had frequently fought with the duchy of Bavaria, Henry the Proud expressed his disappointment by preparing for war.

Conrad III deposed Henry, granting Saxony to Albert I, the margrave of Brandenburg, and presenting Bavaria to Leopold of the East Mark. Yet Conrad could not enforce his decrees. Henry recovered most of Saxony and was poised to invade Bavaria when he died in October, 1139, leaving Henry the Lion Henry the Lion , his ten-year-old son, as his heir. The boy’s grandmother and an uncle managed to compel Conrad to return Saxony to young Henry in 1142. Conrad insisted, however, that Bavaria remain in the hands of Henry II Jasomirgott of the East Mark, brother and heir of the late Leopold of Babenberg. In consequence, young Henry the Lion renounced his claim on his Bavarian inheritance.

Henry II Jasomirgott’s control over Bavaria Bavaria was tenuous. Opponents within the duchy warred against him, and the maturing Henry the Lion began to regret his renunciation of his claim to Bavaria. During the Second Crusade in 1147, Henry the Lion demonstrated military talent fighting against the pagan Wends Wends . When Conrad III returned from the Crusade, Henry the Lion pressed his claim to Bavaria. Fighting had already erupted when Conrad died in February.

In 1152, Conrad III’s nephew, Frederick Barbarossa, was elected king of Germany. Barbarossa (known as Frederick I Barbarossa Frederick I Barbarossa after being crowned king) apparently recognized that Germany’s constitutional structure had been forever altered by the investiture controversy and civil strife during the early twelfth century. The vast power of the princes had undermined the monarchy, and the newly crowned king needed to discover new methods of rule. Barbarossa based his plans on the inherent possibilities of feudalism, then well established in western Europe but existing only tangentially in Germany.

Frederick Barbarossa kneels to Henry the Lion.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

A strong feudal monarch required an extensive royal domain with its economic resources to create and maintain political power. Within Germany little remained of the old royal domain by 1152, so Barbarossa concentrated his initial efforts toward Italy. Here his perquisites as Holy Roman Emperor offered resources to regain his lost rights within Germany. Frederick Barbarossa therefore determined to subjugate Italy so he could eventually dominate Germany.

A second aspect of Barbarossa’s policy consisted of strengthening the hierarchical structure of government within Germany with the monarch firmly entrenched at the summit, sustained by clear lines of authority and control. He needed the cooperation and support of the great dukes to construct a scheme of administration that would, with his outside resources, permit him to dominate these same dukes. He needed to grant concessions to placate powerful families, especially the Welfs, who would never rest content until they recovered their confiscated Bavarian lands. To bring this about, Barbarossa also needed to grant concessions to the Babenbergs to buy their support. The backing of the Babenbergs would counterbalance the dangerous concentration of power in the Welf family.

Frederick I Barbarossa was related to both Henry of Saxony and Henry II Jasomirgott of the East Mark. Apparently Barbarossa promised restoration of Bavaria to the Saxon duke before his election in order to ensure his support. For two years, however, Barbarossa could not persuade Henry II Jasomirgott to discuss the matter. Finally, Barbarossa and his court announced at the diet of Goslar in 1154 that Henry the Lion’s claim to Bavaria overrode that of the Babenbergs. Barbarossa invested Henry the Lion with the disputed territory. Jasomirgott stubbornly refused to accept this judgment for two more years, despite negotiations in which his son Otto, bishop of Freising, took part. Jasomirgott finally yielded in 1156, on condition that he be compensated. Barbarossa delivered his compensation through a charter that converted Henry’s East Mark into the newly created duchy of Austria. He granted this duchy to Henry II Jasomirgott on September 17, 1156, at Regensburg.


According to this charter, known as the privelegium minus, the East Mark became the duchy of Austria and was legally equivalent to the other great German duchies. Furthermore, the emperor granted Duke Henry and his wife the right of inheritance in both the female and the male lines as an added guarantee of permanent succession in the Babenberg family. Moreover, no one was allowed any jurisdiction within Austria without the duke’s consent, a provision that expanded the Austrian duke’s sovereignty beyond that granted elsewhere.

In apparent recognition of Austria’s military obligations on the Holy Roman Empire’s frontier, where the Babenbergs risked continuing warfare with bordering Magyars and the Slavs, Austria was exempted from all imperial military obligations except campaigns against lands on its own borders. None of the usual ducal services to the emperor were exacted from the duke of Austria, except attendance at diets held in Bavaria. In this way, Austria became essentially independent, a status immediately sought and eventually attained by the other duchies and political subdivisions of the Holy Roman Empire.

Finally, Barbarossa’s constitutional reform reinforced the internal authority of the dukes. With this authority, they could end the endemic petty warfare among the lesser nobility that was destroying Germany’s internal resources. As the monarchy dominated the dukes, the dukes were expected to dominate and control the lesser potentates beneath them. The Austrian charter of 1155 illustrates Barbarossa’s technique, bestowing full control of internal administration on the duke.

Of the German duchies that existed in 1156, only Austria persisted as an independent, sovereign state to modern times. Many events intervened between the twelfth and twentieth centuries, but the year 1156 witnessed Austria’s decisive break with its past. Its subsequent greatness flowed, indirectly, from the charter that Frederick I Barbarossa bestowed on Henry II Jasomirgott.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Arnold, Benjamin. Princes and Territories in Medieval Germany. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Details interrelationships between German rulers and the nature of their political status.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barraclough, Geoffrey. The Origins of Modern Germany. 3d ed. Oxford, England: B. Blackwell, 1988. A thorough discussion of medieval Germany, including the establishment of Austria.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brook-Shepherd, Gordon. The Austrians: A Thousand-Year Odyssey. New York: Carroll and Graf, 1997. A brief discussion of the formation of Austria is included in this survey of the nation’s history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Haverkamp, Alfred. Medieval Germany, 1056-1273. Translated by Helga Braun and Richard Mortimer. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Describes the establishment of Babenberg Austria and its subsequent history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Huffman, Joseph P. The Social Politics of Medieval Diplomacy: Anglo-German Relations, 1066-1307. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. This text uses the lens of Anglo-German relations to form a coherent picture of medieval German history from the mid-ninth to the early fourteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leeper, A. W. A. A History of Medieval Austria. Edited by R. W. Seton-Watson and C. A. Macartney. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1941. This book is unrivaled for study of Austrian history through the end of the Babenberg dynasty in 1254.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Munz, Peter. Frederick Barbarossa: A Study in Medieval Politics. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1969. Definitive biography of Barbarossa, including an account of his role in establishing Austria.

Categories: History