The Habsburg Empire was not a normal empire. Even when Austria was the premier power, its preeminence was not the same as that of Russia under the Tsars. Rather the Habsburgs, one of the great houses of Europe, were the feudal system taken to its logical extreme, with dozens of nations having no connection to one another except their joint allegiance to the Habsburg Family. (Note that the spelling "Hapsburg," common in older English translations, is not considered the most correct.) Therefore it is proper to refer to their state (and by extension its military) by reference to The Family. (Not that one despite occasional resemblances.)
The first Habsburg was a warlord named Rudolph who was Feudal Overlord of an alpine fortress called Habichtsburg, which translates into English as "the Hawk's Castle", whence the name "Habsburg." He was elected Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 1273, because of his lack of resources, which it was hoped would make him controllable. As it turned out, Rudolph had considerable military skill and sacked enough rebellious barons' castles to persuade them of the advisability of good order and loyalty to the crown. The Habsburg family became known for its skill in diplomacy and acquired many possessions by marriage, giving rise to the motto "Let others wage wars, but you, merry Austria, marry!" (Bella gerant alii, tu, felix Austria, nube!). At one time, because of a previous merger with the royal family of Spain, it was an empire with holdings in the Western as well as the Eastern hemisphere, becoming the first "Empire on which the sun never sets"; however, the Spanish-based section of the family and the Austrian-based one were split, with Charles V giving Spain and the Netherlands to his son Phillip (Felipe II of Spain) and the Central/Eastern European realms to his brother Ferdinand, and the Spanish branch eventually died out for lack of male issue (and sanity).
The Habsburg imperial forces were always a motley and colorful patchwork of levies from their various possessions as well as mercenaries. They probably reached their greatest height of prestige during the Italian Wars, in which they took on France- previously the most feared army in Europe- and the wealth of Italy and utterly, brutally crushed both under heel. This ushered in almost a century of continuous Habsburg dominance that only began to slip during The Eighty Years' War and Thirty Years' War decades later. The latter saw brilliant but ruthless general Wallenstein fight on against the enemies of the Empire and win a number of battles — only to lose his position due to anti-Imperial Western intervention hammering his army coupled with an overweening personal ambition.
After that the Habsburg forces mostly just scraped by. They could always field a decent army, but rarely a Badass Army, though exceptional generals like Tilly, Eugene of Savoy, or Archduke Charles of Austria-Teschen occasionally won outstanding victories. It was, however, always a colorful force and had as one of its most interesting features a number of Proud Warrior Races from Central Europe and the Balkans, such as the Hussars from Hungary and the Grenzers from Croatia, Serbia and Romania. Slightly less romantic were the rather stolid ethnic Germans from Austria and allied states. Unfortunately being a "colorful" force was also its own downfall. The diversity in the armed forces, comprised of conscripts from dozens of ethnicities together speaking more than ten languages often made command and control difficult. They won few spectacular battles, but they did keep the Empire together until World War I which ushered in the end of the Habsburgs as a state and the end of their military. By this time the Austro-Hungarian forces were probably one of the worst armies in Europe. Before Russia's domestic collapse in 1917, the Russian Army under Brusilov utterly smashed their Austro-Hungarian opponents in Ukraine, to the point that Imperial Germany had to bail them out. The Austrians also suffered embarrassing defeats at the hands of the much smaller Serbian army, again only managing to occupy the country with substantial German aid. The Austro-Hungarian army had considerably more success against the incompetent Italians, to the point Germany felt it could only trust Austria to hold the Italian Front... but in the end they still managed to lose! It should be mentioned that many of the Austro-Hungarian soldiers were Slavs, and were understandably reluctant to fight against other Slavs for the sake of German or Hungarian masters.
One rather odd victory they had was Lissa, in which they defeated the Italian fleet in the war with Prussia and Italy in the nineteenth century — probably the only naval battle the Central-European Habsburgs ever won. Also, while their battleships did practically nothing during World War I, the tiny Austrian submarine force managed to pull off some amazing stunts; captain Von Trapp (made popular in The Sound of Music) was their greatest submarine ace. Another peculiarity noted by historians was that by the end of WWI, the Austro-Hungarian Army "laid down their arms" (rather than surrendered); they outlasted the Empire they served.
Rather amazingly the last Austrian Crown Prince, Otto von Habsburg (or Otto Habsburg-Lothringen in Austria) lived until the ripe old age of 98, dying on the 4th of July, 2011 . Had he actually succeeded his father on the throne he would have reigned for 88 years, becoming one of the longest reigning monarchs in European history. A politician of The European Union, he allegedly once punched Ian Paisley after the latter insulted The Pope as the Antichrist in the European Parliament.
Tropes as depicted in fiction:
- All Your Base Are Belong to Us: Vienna was occupied by the Hungarian Black Army from 1485 to 1490. More famously, the Ottomans attempted it twice, being defeated in both sieges.
- Born in the Wrong Century: Austria under the Habsburgs had the strange honor of being seen as both bafflingly backward for its time and oddly progressive for the era, which tends to show in works and folklore involving the Empire. Among other things, the Empire pre-World War I was a multicultural and multinational hotbed...in an Europe where ethnic nationalism and the effects of the "Springtime of Nations" were still in vogue.
- Cool Horse: The famous Lipizzaner stallions of the Spanish Riding School, which even merited a Disney movie, Miracle of the White Stallions.
- Determinator: Tends to be shown as this trope as well. Given that until World War I, Austria/Austria-Hungary had gone through centuries of threats that would have torn up other countries. This could also apply to the Austro-Hungarian military, which for all its weaknesses effectively outlasted their own Empire.
- Folk Hero: Prince Eugene of Savoy, undoubtedly Austria's best military commander during the 17th and 18th centuries, has a German folksong, Prinz Eugen, der edle Ritter ("Prince Eugene, the noble knight") about him, which details his recapture of Belgrade from the Turks in 1717.
Als Prinz Eugenius dies vernommen,
Ließ er gleich zusammenkommen
Sein' Gen'ral und Feldmarschall.
Er tät sie recht instruieren,
Wie man sollt' die Truppen führen
Und den Feind recht greifen an.
- From Nobody to Nightmare: How the dynasty is sometimes portrayed. Given how it rose from a relatively obscure noble house in what is now Switzerland to becoming sovereigns of the Danubian realms until the end of World War I.
- I Have Many Names: Depending on the time period and whoever's describing it, the Habsburg Empire has been referred to as the Habsburg Monarchy, Danube Monarchy, Austrian Empire, Austro-Hungarian Empire, Dual Monarchy, or simply The Empire.
- Kicked Upstairs/Reassignment Backfire: The Habsburgs initially gained the Imperial throne of the Holy Roman Empire amidst a conniving nobility who thought they could manipulate the new Emperor into forwarding their own agenda. By the time the HRE was dissolved in the Napoleonic Wars however, the Empire had long become synonymous with Austria and the Habsburgs in particular; with one exception, the position was held by a Habsburg in continuous succession in the later centuries of the HRE.
- Modest Royalty: The Habsburgs, at least later on, were also depicted as this compared to most other royal houses in Europe. Franz Joseph's quarters in particular were said to be relatively spartan and bare-bones, reflecting his military background.
- Multinational Team: The Habsburg Empire tends to be depicted as in real life as a veritable multinational, multicultural and multi-religious domain with a predominantly German (and later, Hungarian) veneer, in contrast to the more homogeneous Imperial Germany.
- The Remnant: The Habsburg realms tend to be seen as one to the old Holy Roman Empire.
- Ruritania : Often thought to have inspired this trope. Justified a bit, but more often than not, even its contemporaries didn't do the research and thought of the country as far more backwards, ignorant and undeveloped than it was in reality.
- Token Enemy Minority: Prince Eugene of Savoy was French by birth.
- What Could Have Been: The myriad possible fates of the Austro-Hungarian Empire open up a can of "what ifs" used in Alternate History fiction. One major concept that's speculated on is Franz Ferdinand of Austria's plan for the United States of Greater Austria, which would've divided the empire into 14 states and 14 semi-autonomous German enclaves within several of the non-German states, giving each of the major nationalities within the empire at least one state of their own instead of only the German Austrians and the Hungarians having that status. Such a multi-ethnic federation would've been practically the European Union in miniature.
- Erich von Stroheim's The Wedding March is about an aristocratic Austrian cavalry officer who falls in love with a working-class girl, in the last days before the Great War breaks out in 1914.
- Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music (and in Real Life) was a former Habsburg officer.
- The Illusionist: It takes place in turn of the century Vienna involving a dramatized retelling of the Mayerling Incident.
- Sunshine: A 1999 Hungarian film staring Ralph Fiennes follows a Jewish family through three different successive eras, with the first set during the final years of the Habsburg Empire. The following ones take place before World War II and during the 1956 Revolution respectively, long after the Monarchy fell.
- The Habsburg Empire exists in Europa Universalis and is a fan favorite. There was a fan write-in campaign to keep Austria's traditional white color for Victoria II.
- The first Victoria: An Empire Under the Sun features them as one of the major obstacles for Prussia/an Italian state to unify Germany and Italy, respectively.
- Hetalia: Axis Powers also follows the embodiments of Austria and Hungary, as well as Prussia from the Renaissance through the War of the Austrian Succession and beyond. Of course, knowing history, we all know how it all ends down the line.
- And with Himaruya moving their story towards the Seven Years' War and the 19th Century, this could be made all the more bittersweet.
- A Disney production as a two-parter for its TV series, Miracle of the White Stallions was about Patton rescuing the horses of the Vienna Spanish Riding School, a showcase of the old Hapsburgs still around today.
- Robert Musil's "unfinished" novel The Man with No Qualities revels in this, depicting the Empire in its final decade. Ironically, the author laments on how Austria-Hungary was so successful and deceptively progressive for the time that it became a victim of that very success.
- They appear as bad guys in 1632. Ditto for just about any work that focuses on Napoléon Bonaparte (he forced the last Holy Roman Emperor to abdicate, though marrying his daughter).
- Jaroslav Haek's The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier vejk During the World War, better known just as The Good Soldier vejk or just vejk (with all attendant variations thereof), an utterly hilarious (though also gut-wrenching no less often) satirical novel about titular "good soldier" during the last days of the Empire. Sadly also unfinished — Haek died of tuberculosis after finishing barely a third of its intended size, with vejk didn't even getting to the front lines — it's still one of the greatest achievements of the Czech literature in particular and world literature in general.
- Apart from vejk, there was a Polish novel and later a film, C.K. dezerterzy. Its similarity in depiction of WWI-era KundK army brought a number of plagiarism accusations, but was a genuine work. Which is yet another example of KundK forces' image of a Red Shirt Army.
- The post-apocalyptic 1983: Doomsday fics for Hetalia: Axis Powers take place in and around Austria, with a number of nods to Franz Joseph and the Habsburg Empire in general. Including the embodiment's brutally cut short "marriage" to Hungary.
- The latest DLC and expansion pack for Civilization V, Gods and Kings features Austria as a playable nation for the first time in the series. Also of note is that it is represented in-game by Maria Theresa and that its unique building is a Coffee House.
- The Hungarian film Colonel Redl (1985) takes place during the Dual Monarchy's waning days, focusing on spy-turned-traitor Alfred Redl. The movie depicts the ethnic and religious tensions within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, showing Archduke Franz Ferdinand using unsavory means (entrapping military officers as spies, provoking conflict with Serbia and Russia) to keep the Empire together at all costs.
- Rachelle McCalla's ebook trilogy The Girl Who Started The War To End All Wars is set in an Alternate History where Sophie Chotek died during her teenage years and never met Archduke Franz Ferdinand, starting a chain of events that led to nuclear war and the threatened extinction of humanity. The heroine, Torin Sinclair, must go back through time to 1885 Bohemia and take the place of Sophie, of whom she's an exact lookalike.
- John Biggins' Otto Prohaska series about an Austrian U-boat commander.
- Much of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution takes place in and around Vienna.
- The Austrian-Hungarian Empire forces appear as a playable faction in Battlefield 1's multiplayer. While unique looking in appearance, they otherwise speak the same German dialect as the German Empire. They appear as enemies in the War Story, "Avanti Savoia!".
- Elisabeth covers the life of Empress Elisabeth, Emperor Franz Joseph I, and their son Crown Prince Rudolf.
- Ancestors Legacy has a campaign depicting Rudolph's trials as Holy Roman Emperor.