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Habsburg Monarchy & Ottoman Empire

Habsburg and Ottoman lands became major carriers of European civilization. The Ottoman and Habsburg states were large, overland empires which managed, by means of military force and enlightened despotism, to hold together their diverse nationalities well into the modern era of the nation-state, beginning with the French Revolution. Yet the middle of the nineteenth century found over half of Southeastern Europe still divided between the two empires, as it had been for three hundred years. Imperial orbits also pulled on the rest of the area, with the possible exception of Greece.

The influences of the two neighboring empires largely determined the dynamics of this growing trade and shifting population in Habsburg and Ottoman empires. The intersection and overlapping of their orbits shaped most of the commercial growth and structural change. The simple model of capitalistic “core-states” rising through commercial exploitation of peripheral areas will not help us here. The presence of Western European interests in the Balkans is simply too small in this period, again excepting Greece. The Ottoman and Habsburg empires are instead the decisive “corestates.

” The borderlands that lay between them became a periphery for both empires (Ingrao 50). The rising trade and migration within or between the empires provided the commercial nexus around which the modern nation states of Southeastern Europe would emerge in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At the same time, the institutional framework bequeathed to the region by Ottoman and Habsburg authorities can hardly be called capitalistic or, as we shall see, even mercantilistic. Both empires left their borderlands a mixture of military and feudal institutions that sought to create a command economy, whether for central or local use.

Also prominent was the chance to play one commercial orbit off against the other. People and goods developed the contrary habit of free movement. Peacetime periods along the borderlands witnessed a kind of compartmentalized coexistence between market forces and imperial framework, even when the latter began to weaken, rather than the clear domination of one by the other that has been the more common pattern in European economic history. War interrupted too often for the market to prevail, as in the Western experience.

Native peasants, traders, and artisans maintained too much economic leverage, if only their ability to move elsewhere, for the state to take control in Russian fashion. The imperial Ottoman framework began the sixteenth century at the height of its strength in the Balkan lands. By 1529, its military forces had subdued all of Greece save some islands, moved west to Croatia, and crossed the Hungarian lands to besiege the Habsburg capital of Vienna. Within these wide European borders, its most illustrious Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, enforced a system of justice and land tenure that most European states might envy.

Trade flourished. Rural and urban populations were growing. The Sultan’s initial concession of cultural and some local political autonomy to each major non-Moslem religious group was based on this confidence and strength. The famous millet system extended such privileges to Jews and to several varieties of Christians, including the Orthodox majority. Yet it was only as imperial authority weakened in later centuries that the concessions expanded to economic and wider political areas.

Increasing power for town traders and village elders or priests combined with declining central control from Istanbul to prepare some of the way for the early nineteenth century emergence of an autonomous Serbia and an independent Greece. In the Bulgarian and Romanian lands, native populations found that less Ottoman control initially meant more power for local Turks or Albanians in the countryside and more for Greeks and others in the towns. Of more uniform influence were the repeated efforts of the Ottoman Empire to defend itself from this decline.

Ottoman efforts bore a surprising resemblance to the policies pursued by the national monarchies of Western Europe during the so-called early modern period from 1600 to 1750. Even there, representative institutions and popular participation deserve far less attention than the efforts of the central government to consolidate executive powers. Recent research by Cohen (1994) suggests that the national monarchies of France and England undertook such consolidation in order to build up the apparatus of government. Royal interest concentrated on creating a large standing army, based on infantry and artillery.

Musketry and cannon had made feudal cavalry and medieval fortresses obsolete by the start of the early modern period. To feed growing armies and capital cities, made possible by the sixteenth-century surge in European population, these governments had to extend their powers for taxing the agricultural production of the peasant majority. The need to manufacture artillery and to pay troops set the pattern for taxation in coin rather than in kind. The Ottoman government in Istanbul had to concern itself not only with collecting such taxes but also with importing a majority of necessary manufactures.

It is within the parameters of these wider imperial interests the patterns of trade, migration, and settlement along the long, shifting, sometimes violent Ottoman border with the Habsburg Empire from the sixteenth century forward. From the eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, both the national experiences and the intersection of imperial orbits varied too much. None of the three achieved the independence of the small Greek state, but each was emerging in its own way from Ottoman domination. The Romanian and Serbian principalities used the Russo-Ottoman war of 1828-29 to win virtual autonomy.

Wallachia and Moldavia shook off a corrupt system of Phanariot Greek rule, operated under Ottoman auspices, only to be marked immediately by the Russian military occupation of 1829-34. Its influences would last longer than Habsburg economic penetration. The Principalities’ economic relations with Habsburg Transylvania ironically laid groundwork for eventual union with the Romanian majority there. The smaller Serbian economy had escaped either Phanariot or Russian influence. Its stronger commercial ties to the neighboring Habsburg lands offered a convenient way to begin escaping Ottoman influence before autonomy was achieved in 1830.

Afterwards these northern ties became dangerously powerful in themselves. The conditions for Balkan economic development began from the lowest possible level because the Ottoman state was a barbaric Oriental despotism, denying the existence of private property and thus precluding any capitalist tendencies before that state’s dissolution. The one essential prerequisite to capitalist development is the primitive accumulation and concentration of capital for future industrial investment in the hands of the rising bourgeoisie through the transfer of existing artisan or peasant assets.

Subsequent modernization is essentially the history of private capitalist manufacturing as it grows according to the labor theory of value, that is through the exploitation of workers paid subsistence wages to produce goods sold for their substantially higher market value. Only a series of artificial barriers has kept the Balkans from undertaking the primitive accumulation of capital that began in Western Europe during the early modern period.

Preventing the otherwise inevitable advance into full-scale industrialization were despotic Ottoman, feudal Habsburg, and imperialistic European restrictions. The more complex and commercial nature of the Ottoman Empire, even its modernizing aspects, is now acknowledged, including the extensive primary research by Turkish scholars (Cohen 98). The Ottoman Empire is now identified as a variety of disintegrating feudal state, at least an improvement over Marx’s original idea of an unchanging Oriental despotism.

The means of primitive capital accumulation are recognized to include not only the direct transfer of property but also the profits of commercial exchange or lending and the state’s borrowing on tax revenues. The Habsburg empire in the first half of the nineteenth century was in economics and culture at least a hundred years in advance of the Ottoman Empire. Economic growth rested on an exploitation of resources; primarily metals: Styrian iron and Idrian mercury, Tyrolean and Bohemian silver, Hungarian copper and gold; but also such staples as Hungarian cattle and wine, Bohemian wheat and flax.

Some commodities were worked up and traded locally. More commonly, and more significantly, they were financed by outsiders and marketed at the great emporia of Germany. In its economic foundations then, as in its religion, this Renaissance society was comparatively open. Indeed, more flexible attitudes were perhaps encouraged by the very predominance of monetary over natural transactions (Ingrao 102-5). The military strength that was the cutting edge of Ottoman authority reached its apex in 1529. Its conquests now included a majority of Hungarian territory.

The advance reached the gates of Vienna, where Habsburg armies were barely able to save the city. Until the threat to their imperial capital, the disjointed Habsburg forces found it difficult to resist the Sultan’s more integrated army. The Ottoman state was centrally organized around the support of its most impressive Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, and his army. Here was a feudal system only in the loose sense that the government had yet to make the transition outside the major cities from military to civilian rule.

Otherwise, the Ottoman central government controlled a system of recruitment from outside and promotion from within that was sufficiently comprehensive to make the empire at its apex basically bureaucratic rather than feudal. The decay of central authority, one generally agreed starting point for European feudalism in the early medieval period, cannot be conjured up for the regime at Suleiman’s command. In the economy as elsewhere in the system, the force and extent of command from above was too powerful during to permit local notables to carve out feudal and other customary rights for themselves.

Pushing forward the cutting edge of the army were two economic institutions designed to maintain military supremacy. The timar system of land granted for military occupation and tax collection controlled rural agriculture. A network of guilds regulated urban manufacture. Their two regimes applied to virtually all of Southeastern Europe, save the western Yugoslav lands and the Romanian Principalities. The former were still under Habsburg control; the latter retained autonomy in return for annual tribute to the Sultan.

The imperial framework for this process was a mixture of military and feudal institutions, not the capitalist or even mercantilist practice that Marxist analysis might lead us to expect. In both the Ottoman and the Habsburg cases, the military measures of each central government initially brought peasant populations back into newly won areas to help secure the borderlands. In the period between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, the Ottoman and Habsburg empires existed briefly as full and active members of a concert of European states.

The coexistence between the imperial framework and market forces left the Ottoman and Habsburg states to emerge in the early nineteenth century with some commercial legacy. Their peasant populations were more familiar with market behavior than were those in many traditional rural societies.


Cohen, Amnon. (1994). Aspects of Ottoman History: Papers from CIEPO IX, Jerusalem. Hebrew University: Jerusalem. Ingrao, Charles W. (2000). The Habsburg Monarchy 1618-1815. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

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