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Reformation: The term "Reformation" has been used since 1690 to denote the religious revolution initiated by Martin Luther in 1517, which differed from medieval reform movements in that it did not aim at structural changes but at religious renewal. It resulted in tensions, schisms and the formation of separate denominations. Catholic revival and the Counter-Reformation sought to prevent the spread of the reform movement. In the German Empire, the Peace of Westphalia put an end to the war between Catholics and the followers of the Reformation

The ideas of the Reformation spread quickly in the realm of the Habsburgs and found many supporters. The princes at first ruled over Protestant majorities but then tried to restore denominational unity by re-establishing the old ecclesiastical order. Observance of this principle and the great differences between the individual regions tend to create the impression that the history of the Reformation in Austria was heterogeneous and marked by conflicts, with the result that the interrelations between religious and political issues and the position of the House of Austria are all but overlooked.

The reasons for the rapid spread of the Reformation were religious in nature and were also due to an increasingly introspective trend that was critical of the ecclesiastic system around the year 1500. In addition, social ills and emerging ideals of freedom - freedom in the sense of a corporate right based on religious grounds - strengthened the movement, which the peasantry promoted as a revolutionary development ( Peasants' Revolts) and which were also supported by the (noble) Estates as part of their political responsibility within their realms.

The development of a landstaendische ("Estatist") form of government in an emerging larger state that was militarily threatened by the Turks provided the political framework for the successful spread of the Reformation movement, and also for overcoming it. After a first phase of free movement, which Ferdinand I sought to curb by threatening draconian sanctions from 1524 onwards, the period up to 1550 or thereabouts saw a decline of the traditional system of the Church. This was, amongst other things, due to economic causes (financial exhaustion of foundations, shortage of clerics, low living standards) The Reformation movement was more adaptable than the traditional system of the Church so that by 1550 all of the Habsburgs' lands other than Tirol had witnessed the establishment of a church system that adopted the tenets of the Reformation. In this context, considerable importance attached to the massive influence that laymen had the right to exercise on the Church from medieval times (church patronage).

By 1570 or so a considerable part of the low clergy consisted of Protestant pastors, and the Estates called for toleration of their Protestant creed. Maximilian II and Karl II, respectively, granted privileges to the two Danube countries in 1568 and 1571 and to Styria, Carinthia and Carniola in 1572 and 1578. These privileges did not stipulate the principle of coexistence for the two denominations but left the governance of the Protestant churches emerging in their realms to the Estates. While the Estates started to organise their church governance (rituals, "Landschaftsschulen" (estate schools) in Graz, Linz and Klagenfurt, visitation of churches in Lower Austria, construction of churches in places like Klagenfurt, Loosdorf and Horn), Catholic quarters were already embarking on the Counter-Reformation.

Within the Protestant movement diversification set in on the basis of different interpretations of the fundamental tenets of the Reformation movement. This conflict ("Flacian controversy", after M. Flacius Illyricus) and the conviction that, theologically, obedience to the prince of the realm ranked higher than the prince's duty to protect his subjects and the religious freedom of the individual weakened the position of the Protestant parties vis-à-vis the Catholics, who were again gathering strength.

Despite the flowering of Protestant ecclesiastic life and a gradual consolidation of denominational positions amongst the population at large, the Counter-Reformation succeeded in its fight against Protestantism. As regards Inneroesterreich, Protestant churches were soon eliminated (1587) in Carniola, where they had failed to convert the Slovene and Croat population in spite of considerable efforts to overcome the language barrier (translations of the Bible and catechism). In Carinthia and Styria Protestant preachers and teachers were expelled from the Princes' cities in 1585; the "campaigns" of the Counter-Reformation did away with organised Protestant church life. This was followed by efforts to re-convert the population, which culminated in the expulsion of the Protestant noblemen in 1628. Many people remained Protestants at heart, while many others had left the country earlier, partly after having pretended to have returned to the Catholic fold.

In the Danube countries the Counter-Reformation was to some extent inhibited by the "Habsburg Brothers' Conflict" between Rudolf II and Matthias. When the latter refused to implement religious concessions, 166 Protestant noblemen formed an alliance at Horn in 1608, refused allegiance and threatened resistance, whereupon Matthias granted a new privilege ("Capitulation Resolution") in 1609, which promised to safeguard the Protestants' position but did little to prevent the advance of the spirit of Catholicism. Still, a late flowering of Protestantism occurred in Upper Austria, particularly in the fields of culture and scholarship. Theological dissension had been overcome and the Lutheran faith was successfully propagated by excellent preachers.

When Ferdinand II ascended the throne, the situation changed thoroughly: the Estates failed with the tactics which had been successful in1608, Ferdinand II prevailed in the ensuing struggle with the help of Bavaria (to which Upper Austria was pledged), and the Battle of the White Mountain (1620) robbed the Protestants' cause of all prospects. Coercive action followed along with bans, the granting of patronages to Catholics, the ennoblement of Catholics, forced conversions etc. A religiously and politically motivated peasants' revolt in Upper Austria was quenched in 1626, and all Protestant preachers and school-teachers were exiled. The Peace of Westphalia only granted personal religious freedom to the nobility of Lower Austria.


P. F. Barton, Evangelisch in Oesterreich, 1987; G. Mecenseffy, Geschichte des Protestantismus in Oesterreich, 1956; G. Reingrabner, Protestanten in Oesterreich, Geschichte und Dokumentation, 1981.