"If Austria did not exist,
it would be necessary to invent her
František Palacký, Czech historian, 1848

"Austria delenda est"
R. W. Seton-Watson, Scottish historian, 1918

For centuries, the Habsburg monarchy had made itself indispensable to Europe: first as the bulwark against the Ottoman Empire's advance through the Balkans, and later as a balance of power preventing any one country from controlling the central European plain. Yet the empire's outward face of dapper diplomacy concealed growing dissent and disarray, which reached new heights under the strains of war as allegiance to the octogenarian emperor Franz Josef ebbed away.

While Austria's allies debated her future, the decision was ultimately made for them by the empire's many nationalities, who gradually withdrew whatever support they had had for the dynasty. Ironically, Austria-Hungary had gone to war in 1914 for the sake of her territorial integrity; the conflict only helped to persuade many of her subjects that the Habsburgs could no longer serve their interests.

Austria Goes To War

Meet The Neighbours

Traditionally, the Habsburg empire had been little more than a catch-all term for whatever possessions the dynasty happened to hold at the time. The centralising reforms of the eighteenth-century enlightened absolutist Joseph II had met with widespread resistance, not least from the Magyar nobility who jealously defended their privileges in Hungary. While nationalism came to bind other states together in the nineteenth century, the Habsburgs depended on the principle of Kaisertreue - loyalty to the emperor, rather than identification with the state.

The empire in 1914 included not only Austria and Hungary proper, but the modern-day Croatia and Slovenia, Czech and Slovak Republics, Galicia which now belongs to Poland and the Ukraine), and Transylvania and the Bukovina which would pass to Romania. In theory, at least, eleven major nationalities looked to Franz Josef: Germans and Magyars, Poles and Italians, Croats, Slovenes and Serbs, Czechs and Slovaks, Ruthenes (or Ukrainians) and Romanians.

Since the Ausgleich agreement of 1867, the state had been known as Austria-Hungary, a dualist federation between the Austrian and Hungarian entities: central government, in fact, only had responsibility for foreign policy and the Imperial and Royal Army. To Hungary belonged the historic Crownlands of St Stephen, namely Hungary, Slovakia and Transylvania, not to forget Croatia, which had semi-autonomous status. 'Austria' took care of the rest.

Although, by the 1900s, Turkey was making Austria-Hungary seem well-ordered, Constantinople's weakness had worked to the advantage of Serbia and the other Balkan monarchies, and the Austrian chief of staff Conrad von Hotzendorff feared that Serbia would encourage the empire's South Slavs - Croats, Serbs and Slovenes - to secede. His fears grew after Serbia's Karađorđević kings returned to power in the bloody palace coup of 1903, and his war plans against Serbia became almost an annual event, only relieved by blueprints for an offensive against the old enemy Italy.


Austria's former ally had turned nasty, and the abortive Pig War against Serbia convinced Conrad that economic sanctions could do nothing to prevent her encouraging Habsburg subjects towards insurrection. Austria had occupied Bosnia and Herzegovina thirty years earlier as a protectorate, and in 1908 formalised this as annexation, to the anger of Serbia's patron Russia - war might even have ensued, had Russia not backed down. After Serbia doubled her size in the Balkan Wars, she became all the more attractive to the monarchy's South Slavs.

The terrorist outrage of June 28, 1914, when the heir to the throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by a Bosnian Serb student, brought the rest of Vienna around to Conrad's point of view. Austria-Hungary accused the Serbian government for the murder, and - acting on the celebrated blank cheque from Germany - served it with an ultimatum to allow Austrian investigators into Serbia, so flagrant a breach of sovereignty at the time that Belgrade could not have been expected to fulfil it.

The only politician to hold out was the Hungarian prime minister István Tisza, on the grounds that annexing Serbia and filling the monarchy with even more Slavs would further dilute the Magyars' political power.

War of Attrition

Carpathian Winter

With the exception of Germany's chief of staff, few in Europe expected the war of attrition that the war which broke out in August 1914 would become. Still, Austria-Hungary had trained less of its population for war than any other great power, and Conrad's peculiar mobilisation arrangements only worsened matters: so devoted was Conrad to his Serbian war that he despatched his reserve force B-Staffel to the Balkans even though he knew Russia would be entering the war as well.

B-Staffel had to be sent back to Vienna before it could be re-routed to fight Russia in Galicia, and the bungle cost Austria-Hungary one third of her effectives in the first three weeks of the war. The Habsburg army, less a lean, mean fighting machine than a grand affirmative action scheme, never recovered from its early losses: experienced NCOs and multi-lingual officers fell with the rest, while men from the Austrian home guard, the Landsturm, were rushed to the front hardly knowing how to hold a rifle.

The 'Landsturm and militia army' - as Austria's official military history would call it - became caught on the bleak Carpathian Mountains for the winter of 1914-15, exposing the men to a harsh winter for which their uniforms and blankets were no match. Meanwhile, Austria had also failed to follow up their 1914 push into Serbia, and a new front opened up in May 1915 when Italy - whom Bismarck had coaxed into alliance with Germany and the Habsburgs - joined the war on the side of the Entente instead of the Central Powers.

Italy had taken sides according to the territory she was promised: Austria had only offered the Italian-majority Trentino, but the Entente had gone further and agreed to her demand for large parts of South Slav-majority Dalmatia, which would give Italy supremacy on the Adriatic Sea. In total, a dozen inconclusive battles would be fought between them on the Isonzo river, Austria's Somme.

We're Off to Join the Russians

In military terms, Austria-Hungary's point of no return was Russia's Brusilov Offensive in the summer of 1916, when the city of Lutsk collapsed and army morale went with it. Only after these reverses did Slovene, Croat and Bosniak soldiers begin to desert in substantial numbers, and previously reliable units like the VII Army could no longer be depended on. Czech soldiers, however, had been rather more restive from the beginning: one Czech division had departed from Prague in August 1914 chanting 'We're off to fight the Russians and we don't know why'.

Even before the Brusilov offensive, Czechs had been known to desert across the lines of the country they had traditionally admired, often singing their anthem Hej, Sloveni to identify themselves. In July 1917, Czech volunteers fighting with Russia defeated Austro-Hungarian forces at Zborów, and by 1918, Czech volunteer forces were receiving increasing recognition from the Entente and had become a real alternative to fighting for the Habsburgs. Serbs had also been frequent deserters since the beginning of the war, due in no small part to the chauvinism directed against them since the murder of the Archduke.

After revolution put paid to the Russian war effort, large numbers of prisoners of war returned haphazardly to the Austrian army: their exposure to socialism while in Russian custody made them rather less than welcome to the high command. Despite the six-week political quarantine imposed on all returnees, ex-POWs were still implicated in many of the mutinies that undermined the army in early 1918, demanding, not unreasonably, that they be fed and clothed.

Green Cadres

The mutiny of the Austro-Hungarian fleet in its port of Kotor that February was a cause of particular alarm, seeming to make the rebels reminiscent of the Kronstadt sailors who had provided the Russian revolution with much of its muscle. In general, though, the mutineers' concerns were more material than political: by September 1918, on the Italian front which had been pushed back to the river Piave, some front-line soldiers were even seen without shirts, and the X Army was reported to be digging up twice-condemned meat.

As the summer of 1918 went on, growing numbers of soldiers rejected the war altogether, and absconded into the so-called green cadres, bands of armed deserters responsible for significant disorder in the hinterlands through which they roamed. After Bulgaria capitulated and signed a separate peace with the Entente at the end of September 1918, it was clear that Austria could not fill the gap for the Central Powers, and October was spent in a series of strategic retreats while Vienna put out a series of last-ditch, desperate peace feelers.

In general, a given nationality would desert in larger numbers after its particular enemy had been knocked out and it began to question its role - although most desertions were less to do with nationalism than a reluctance to return to active service. The last incarnation of the Imperial and Royal Army appears to have depended mostly on Magyar, Croat and German peasant soldiers, but it would have asked too much of even a German's Kaisertreue to expect him to endure another winter of a war Vienna was demonstrating that it could neither win nor sustain.

The Italians celebrated their last defeat of Austria, at Vittorio Veneto on November 4, 1918, but - contrary to the myth propagated by nostalgic Habsburg officers after the war - the army had all but collapsed; and it would only have been defending, in any case, a state that no longer existed.

The Chancelleries of Europe

The New Europe

In 1914, none of the Entente's diplomats had imagined that the war would end with Austria-Hungary dismembered. Even the pledges made to Italy, and to Romania in 1916, to induce them to join the alliance, only implied the limited amputations of the Trentino, Dalmatia and Transylvania. Serbia was also supposed to be in line for the access to the Adriatic she coveted, as much of a clash with the Treaty of London as this may have seemed: the incompatibility, in fact, produced continuing bitterness within the Entente.

Russia's attempt to unify Poland under the Romanov dynasty meant that the Habsburgs would have to cope without Galicia either, drastically reducing the size of the future empire. There was no other state to claim the Czechs and Slovaks, though, and their landlocked location made diplomats sceptical that an independent Czechoslovakia would be viable: only Shakespeare had endowed Bohemia with a coast.

Traditionally, the Habsburgs had depicted their empire as the barrier to German and Russian expansion; a major tactic of the nationalist émigrés who campaigned in the Entente capitals was to try to prove that the new states, probably joined in some kind of federation, could do the same job. The South Slav cause was represented by the Yugoslav Committee, who based themselves in London in April 1915, and the veteran academic Tomas Masaryk put himself forward to speak for the Czechs.

In London, the various émigrés were warmly received by the historian R. W. Seton-Watson and the journalist Henry Wickham Steed, two friends who already knew many of the nationalists from the years they had spent in Austria-Hungary. The pair assisted the émigrés to make their case to the Foreign Office, organised a weekly journal, The New Europe, to keep the British public informed on central Europe and, in 1918, found official employment with the Department for Propaganda in Enemy Countries, which they used to advance their argument that Austria-Hungary and the Habsburgs themselves had no future in post-war Europe.

The Sixtus Letter

The diplomats' decisions, however, owed less to the energies of unofficial lobbyists than to the eventual realisation that Austria-Hungary had become inseparable from Germany, the focus of the war for Britain and France. Throughout 1917, top-secret attempts had been made to conclude a separate peace with the Habsburg monarchy, encouraged by the indications of the new reformist emperor Karl - Franz Josef had died in December 1916 - that he was interested in doing exactly that.

The most serious of these peace feelers was communicated to the Entente via Karl's cousin Prince Sixte of Bourbon-Parma, a serving officer in the Belgian army, in the spring of 1917 when the French Nivelle Offensive had just collapsed on the Western Front. The British prime minister David Lloyd George had high hopes for the conversations, which foundered when the Italian foreign minister Sidney Sonnino refused point-blank to countenance any agreement which would obstruct his country's designs on Dalmatia.

Nonetheless, Lloyd George twice attempted to revive the talks, and sent the South African Jan Smuts to Switzerland that December to meet the Austrian envoy Count Mensdorff. This time, the negotiations collapsed when it became apparent that the Austrians would not - or perhaps could not - ask for anything else than a general peace, and Britain seemed implacably opposed to a negotiated peace with Germany.

The Foreign Office had been sceptical even before Smuts left the country, and appeared to be vindicated in the spring of 1918 when the French prime minister Georges Clemenceau quarrelled with Austria's foreign secretary, Ottokar Czernin, and published the so-called 'Sixtus letter' revealing Karl's approach to the Entente, which Berlin interpreted as tantamount to treachery.

Karl was summoned to the German headquarters at Spa in May, forcing him to sign an agreement which bound Austria-Hungary even more tightly into the German military machine. The summer, accordingly, saw Entente commitments to an independent Poland and Czechoslovakia, although - largely thanks to Sonnino - not to Yugoslavia.

Field Grey

Austro-Hungarian units had first fought under German command in 1915, when general August von Mackensen picked up where Conrad had left off and routed the Serbian army, which was forced into a winter retreat across Albania to Corfu. At the same time, Germany had refused to declare war on Italy, perhaps demonstrating that the relationship between the two allies had always been somewhat unequal.

Still, the Imperial and Royal Army retained its independence until the middle of 1916, when a unified eastern command was established under the German field marshal Paul von Hindenburg. Austria-Hungary was reeling from the Brusilov offensive at the time, and Romania's opportunistic declaration of war in August lumbered the Austrians with yet another front to defend with her thinly-spread forces. As the war continued and Austrian resources became more and more depleted, the Habsburg army, once renowned for its gloriously coloured tin soldier uniforms, fought in Germany's drab field grey.

In the short term, the monarchy derived quite some benefit from German military assistance, and the Prussian martinets were even able to persuade Czech and Ukrainian soldiers to fight Russians, a not inconsiderable task. Yet Germany did not consult Vienna before embarking on the tactic of unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917, which sank so many American liners that it persuaded Woodrow Wilson to join the Entente's side.

Karl regretted the consequence, and regretted the way it had been brought about; diplomatically, the cost of Austria's further reliance on Germany far outweighed the value of a breakthrough or two at Gorlice-Tarnów. When the Entente's statesman recognised the extent of Austria's dependence, they became more sympathetic to the alternative strategy enthusiastically set out by the émigrés; and in 1918, but not before, the émigrés finally became representative of their nationalities' opinion.

The Home Front

Shortages and Strikes

Austria-Hungary's 'subject' nationalities - essentially, the Slavs and Romanians - remained loyal to the Habsburgs as long as their interests could not be better served elsewhere: when consensus broke down on the monarchy's home front, it was the result of a severe economic crisis. The empire as a whole had been economically self-sufficient before 1914, but the outbreak of war saw an immediate grain shortage, partly because the breadbasket of Galicia had been occupied by the Russians and farmhands from across the monarchy had been conscripted.

The grain problem was worsened, though, by what many in the 'Austrian' half of the state complained of as Hungary's tendency - being the empire's agricultural heartland - to look after itself before delivering anything to Austria. In fact, the first destination of Hungarian surpluses was the army, although Hungarian civilians' rations were still maintained at a higher level than Austrians' were. Two meatless days per week had to be imposed in Austria, and inflation - as was the case in all the belligerent countries - outstripped wages by some degree.

Price riots hit Vienna in January, May and September 1916, and culminated in the strike wave of January 1918. Only a few months after the October Revolution in Russia, Karl was sufficiently disturbed by these strikes to hasten the peace talks with Bolshevik Russia at Brest-Litovsk, which were intended to allow Austria-Hungary access to grain - which never in fact arrived - from the Ukraine.

'Prison of Peoples'

These shortages affected all the Habsburgs' subjects equally, at least, those without access to the thriving black market. Certain nationalities also had particular grievances against the military administration in Austria, where several hundred Serbs were reported to have been executed almost immediately war broke out for the sake of national security; Romanians, too, were repressed after their nation became an enemy. The Czechs, meanwhile, resented the arrest and condemnation to death of their chief nationalist leader, Karl Kramar, and Masaryk and the Yugoslavs made much of such cases in their propaganda abroad.

On the 'Austrian' side, martial law had essentially been imposed on regions close to the front. No such provisions applied in Hungary, where the civilian government retained control over the military, but Magyar politicians were not known for their sensitivity towards the non-Magyar nationalities. Seton-Watson, in fact, had made his name as an Austro-Hungarian expert before the war with his éxposé of Hungarian officials' less than democratic behaviour in the Croatian elections of 1910.

When Karl came to power, he attempted to turn back martial law to some extent, pardoning Kramar and his colleagues and allowing the Austrian parliament, the Reichsrat, to reopen. During its first session in May 1917, the Czech and South Slav deputies declared themselves in favour of some kind of federalisation scheme which would give them a viable system of self-government.

Karl was not unsympathetic to federalist reform; neither, in fact, had Archduke Franz Ferdinand been, but his programme had run aground on the Magyars' refusal to dilute their political power in Hungary. In 1917, when the Entente had been seriously considering peace with Austria, British Foreign Office staff had recommended federalism too, possibly a four-way system with units for the Germans, Magyars, Czechs and South Slavs.

Karl's relaxations of censorship had given nationalists more freedom to debate their - and therefore his - future, and the amnesty he extended to the Czech leaders in July 1917 had upset, for the first time, the Austrian Germans, whose rivalry with the Czechs in Bohemia had effectively paralysed Austrian political life thanks to the two groups' mutual obstructionism in the Reichsrat.

Most of the nationalities were not actually separatist in 1917, a fact reflected in the tone of the May Declaration. Masaryk, who was, explained the declaration away as the most that the deputies could get away with under the conditions of Austrian censorship, but it is more likely that Vienna's failure to conclude the peace they called for then began to persuade them towards the open separatism they displayed at a series of demonstrations in May 1918 ostensibly commemorating the Czech National Theatre.

National Councils

In 1918, when Austria-Hungary's enemies finally appeared to be developing an interest in the nationalities, declaring for the Entente became a way to signal that they no longer trusted the Habsburgs' state to provide for them. The Allied recognition of the Polish and Czech armies as fully-fledged Entente belligerents, and their sponsorship of the Rome Congress of Oppressed Nationalities in April 1918, persuaded the nationalities that, if nothing else, their own states could hardly do a worse job.

By October 1918, Austria-Hungary's central government had all but failed to operate, unable to cope with disorder from the home front and the green cadres, let alone feed the population. National Councils were formed early that month in Prague and Zagreb (the embryonic National Council in Ljubljana, the Slovenes' capital, quickly affiliated to the latter); by the time Karl offered his final plan for federalist reform on October 16, there was hardly a state to be federalised.

The Entente's recognition of the Czech National Council had already been ensured by an August agreement, and Masaryk returned to Prague as Czechoslovakia's first president. The Yugoslavs, as ever, found it more difficult, and Zagreb's headache was compounded by a contest with Italian troops attempting to occupy the territory included in the Treaty of London, as well as the city of Rijeka - not even included in the Treaty - which had traditionally been Hungary and Croatia's major port. By December 1, 1918, the National Council in Zagreb had unified with the Kingdom of Serbia for the sake of its available military power, postponing controversial talks on the constitution of the new Yugoslavia.

All The Emperor's Men

Before the Paris Peace Conference had begun, Austria-Hungary's successor states had already declared themselves. Woodrow Wilson and his colleagues were accused of carving up the map of Europe at the time, and since; but re-assembling the Habsburg empire amid the chaos of late 1918 would have taken military commitments that the exhausted belligerents were not prepared to make.

Still, it took some time for Karl's supporters to accept that the Monarchy could not be repaired, and for several years they attempted to establish him as King of Hungary. After Béla Kun's abortive Communist revolution in 1919, the country was ruled by the reactionary Miklos Horthy: since Hungarian nationalism clung so strongly to Hungary's traditional privileges, he was ostensibly the regent for the Habsburgs. Karl took him at his word, and was helicoptered into suburban Budapest in 1921. Right-wing students fought him back, and he was packed off to exile on Madeira.

During the empire's last years, those who preferred to keep Austria-Hungary intact argued that the successor states would be unable to solve their territorial disputes without war, or to avoid becoming economic satellites of a resurgent Germany. Indeed, Hungary's grievances at the Treaty of Trianon, which went beyond the nationality principle and apportioned Magyar-dominated territory to her neighbours, were the foundations of the region's instability for the next twenty years.

During the 1930s, the successor states did move into Germany's economic orbit, although this was not pre-determined in 1918. Post-war French security policy envisaged the successors as a cordon to German expansion, and France brokered the Little Entente between Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia, but was not able or willing to back it up with reliable economic links.

By the end of the war, the Austro-Hungarian state had lost the allegiance of too many of its population for its continued existence to be viable. True federalism arrived too late, but central Europe's latest experiment might make some of the empire's nostalgics wonder if Karl's last resort had finally come of age.

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