Book Review: The Grand Strategy of the Habsburg Empire


by A. Wess Mitchell

Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018. Pp. xvi, 406. Illus., maps, tables, diagr., notes, biblio., index. $35.00. ISBN: 9780691176703


From Fragmentary Inheritance to Empire

In this work, Dr. Mitchell, a veteran policy analyst who is currently Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, takes a look at the “Habsburg Puzzle”. That is, the success of the Austrian Habsburgs in building and sustaining for several centuries a great European power out of a rather inchoate conglomeration of states and statelets. He begins with the division of the global Hapsburg realm of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who was also Charles I of Spain, with, in the mid-sixteenth century, he divided into two parts, leaving the rather ramshackled assembly of ancestral Habsburg lands in the hands of his younger brother.

After a relatively short overview of the fate of the Habsburg realm during the wars of religion and of Louis XIV, Mitchell concentrates on events from the from the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) through the Austro-Prussian War (1866), the period in which several able monarchs were able to create an “Empire of the Danube” that was for a time – in the aftermath of the defeat of Napoleon – the dominant power in Europe. Yet this “state” always lacked the seemingly essential elements of a great power, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, or religious unity, and was surrounded by potent rivals – Prussia, the Ottomans, France – though for a long time allied with one, Russia.

Mitchell argues that the Habsburgs developed a grand strategic vision based on excellent use of good natural frontiers, agile diplomacy, careful alliances, a finely tuned intelligence service, extensive fortifications, strategic and tactical deception, and careful husbanding of resources, while holding the loyalty of its polyglot inhabitants.

In making his case, Mitchell delves into a wide variety of matters – military theory and writings, industrial development, population statistics, fortification strategies, internal politics, army organization, treaty making, and more, including the Habsburgs’ penchant for well-connected marriages (‘”et others wage war: thou, happy Austria, marry.”). He makes effective use of graphic aids to support his arguments as needed.

A very serious work, The Grand Strategy of the Habsburg Empire will prove rewarding reading for those interested in eighteenth and nineteenth Europe or the concept of grand strategy.


Note: The Grand Strategy of the Habsburg Empire is also available in several e-editions


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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