Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Assassination of Franz Ferdinand, 28 June 1914

Perhaps it is too pithy to say that one man – or the death of one man – began the cataclysm that resulted in the deaths of millions. In many ways, however, it is an accurate statement. We have seen that the Europe of the early twentieth century was a seething mass of tension, animosity, and alliances, and that direct conflict was highly likely. We should not fall into the trap, however, of suggesting that what eventuated from all of this – the First World War – was in any way inevitable. Indeed, if it were, it is surprising that war had not broken out sooner. Instead, the spark that led to mass mobilisations was indeed the death of one man, and the people who engineered his murder never had any intention of beginning a Europe-wide general war. How this happened will be discussed in this series of posts. This particular post, however, will focus on the planning for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, and the execution of that plot. Later posts will consider the responses of the various states of Europe, and why this murder became the casus bellum for what would be termed the “war to end all wars.”


English: Greater Serbian aspirations before th...

The Kingdom of Serbia aspired to unite all the Balkan Slavic people under a new, “Greater Serbia.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since revolting against Ottoman rule in 1835, the Kingdom of Serbia had been a vocal champion of Slavic independence in the Balkans. Throughout the latter nineteenth century, as Ottoman influence in the region receded, Serbia continually positioned itself as a young but important powerbroker, and its continued friendship with Russia guaranteed its border security. Slowly but surely, other countries – Bulgaria, Rumania, Montenegro – managed to extricate themselves from under the Turkish yoke. Serbia’s relationship with these neighbours, however, was strained at best. As one of the first Balkan Slavic countries to gain independence, it had seen itself as the magister of the region. This was viewed with discomfort by the other Balkan states, which had only just gained their hard-won independence, and were not about to see it fettered away by aligning themselves to Belgrade’s vision of a “Greater Serbia.” For Serbia, the hoped-for regional dominance was further compromised by rampant illiteracy and a primitive agrarian-based economy that left the kingdom well behind other European powers. Serbia strove for grandeur but lacked the regional support or the domestic wherewithal to accomplish it.

Now-public domain seal of Serbian Black Hand o...

The seal of Ujedinjenje ili smrt! (Unification or Death!), better known as the Black Hand. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This sat uncomfortably with both pan-Slavic and Serbian nationalists, who saw the state not only fail to take its supposedly rightful position at the head of the Balkans, but also squander and woefully mismanage relations with fellow Balkan states. Consequently, as official Serbian policymakers faltered, other semiofficial or disavowed organisations emerged to promote Serbia’s role in a pan-Slavic future. In September 1901, a cabal of army officers led by Captain Dragutin Dimitrijevic (codenamed “Apis”) formed Ujedinjenje ili smrt! (Unification or Death!), a semi-secret organisation committed to the liberation of Slavic territories from empires that still held land in the Balkans, and the unification of these territories, and those that had already gained independence, under the Serbian banner, to form a large Serbian state. This first aim put the group, commonly known as the Black Hand, firmly in conflict with both the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had eagerly stepped in when Ottoman influence in the region began to wane. In particular, the Black Hand interested itself in the affairs of the provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which were occupied by Austria-Hungary as stipulated in the Treaty of Berlin, and officially annexed in 1908. To this end, the Black Hand provided its support, both material and moral, to a small Bosnian nationalist organisation known as Young Bosnia. Young Bosnia’s small membership was mostly made up of radical university students, seeking Bosnia’s independence from Austria-Hungary. This, of course, immediately drew the nascent group to the attention of Apis, who saw it as a possible means of striking at Austria-Hungary and fulfilling part of the Black Hand’s charter, while not necessarily opening Serbia to censure.

Aleksandar_Obrenovic, King of Serbia

King Alexander and Queen Draga: Serbian royal family, overthrown and exterminated by the Black Hand, led by Apis.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The rise of the Black Hand, and its less adventurous but still vehemently nationalist counterpart, Narodna Odbrana, was only possible as long as Serbian political power remained weak. Without government or legal oversight, these groups were able to infiltrate themselves into the ultranationalist cabals of the country, and extend their influence further into other Balkan territories, such as Bosnia. Part of the reason this was possible was the ever-present fear among government figures that the ultranationalists would turn on them. Certainly, there was precedent for this. Apis had formed Black Hand as a conspiracy, not against Austria-Hungary, but against the Serbian royal family, who he and his colleagues saw as weak, vacillating, and unwilling to truly challenge Serbia’s foes. In 1903, Black Hand operatives stormed the Old Palace in Belgrade and, having tricked King Alexander and Queen Draga out of hiding, viciously and brutally murdered the pair, throwing their dismembered bodies out the window of their bedchamber, and on to a pile of horse manure outside. The coup also claimed the lives of the prime minister, and the minister of war, as well as the queen’s two brothers, and the king’s aide-de-camp. The rebels placed a new dynasty on the throne, in the person of King Peter Karadordevic. Remarkably, though, the response among Serbian society, and especially in Belgrade, where the brutal assassinations had occurred, was muted by indifference. King Peter never forgot this, and from the moment he took to the throne he assumed a largely ceremonial role, choosing to surrender real power to the cabal.

This lesson was also learned by the Serbian statesman Nikola Pasic, a mainstay in the Skupstina, who had previously served – and would in the future serve – on many occasions as prime minister. Pasic was deeply intelligent, fiercely loyal to his country, and intensely popular. He was also cripplingly indecisive, and keenly aware that the rise of Black Hand and other, similar organisations had, by definition, created a conflict of loyalties for the Serbian Army in particular. On the one hand, Pasic and the government had to weigh up Serbia’s role as a power in Europe, including maintaining cordial relations with its neighbours. On the other hand, the Black Hand demanded Serbia’s expansion and elevation of its power. The former was the prudent option. The latter, however, appealed to the ambitious army officer corps. It is no coincidence that the Black Hand had been formed by a close-knit group of officers. Matters were not improved by Austria-Hungary’s actions; in 1906, for instance, Vienna, aiming to squeeze Serbia economically, closed its borders to Serbian pork – the very foundation of the Serbian export economy. Belgrade’s response was to seek new means of exporting pork, which ultimately came to fruition when France signed a favourable import treaty with Serbia, but this was a long process, and the army increasingly agitated for a military counterstrike against the Habsburg Empire. This pressure only increased after Austria-Hungary’s formal annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908.

At the centre of Serbia’s power structure, therefore, a strange and dangerous duality had formed. On the one hand, the legitimate government institutions, often led by the sober Pasic, tried to use diplomatic leverage to solve its foreign policy problems, which were chiefly caused by its troubled relationship with Austria-Hungary. On the other hand, Serbian ultranationalist organisations called for more punitive policies, and demanded the expansion of Serbia into a regional powerhouse. This could only come at the expense of Austria-Hungary; thus, for all intents and purposes, groups like the Black Hand and Narodna Odbrana were agitating for war with the Habsburg Empire. In order for this to be successful, these groups banked on Russian support, believing that the paternalistic relationship between Russia and Serbia would oblige St. Petersburg to arm its Balkan ally and provide a brotherhood in arms against Austria. Coupled with the impression that Austria-Hungary was falling into an irreversible decline, this sentiment resonated with many in the army, to the extent that it is fair to say that a large proportion of the Serbian Army was either sympathetic to or directly influenced by either Narodna Odbrana or Ujedinjenje ili smrt! To an astute politician like Pasic, it was clear that, even though he was popular within the civilian electorate, this would mean little if he were to antagonise the Black Hand, which could very well engineer his downfall or murder. As a result, even though the Black Hand was technically illegal, the Pasic administrations tended to turn a blind eye to its operations.

Bosnia and Herzegovina: Battleground by Proxy.

"Distribution of Races in Austria–Hungary...

The Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1911. Bosnia and Herzegovina are the southernmost provinces. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans”, Otto von Bismarck had once warned; if he had survived to 1908 he would no doubt have predicted that the flashpoint would be Bosnia. Here, the difficulties of Austro-Serbian relations came into sharp relief. Austria-Hungary had been promised the right to annex the former Ottoman provinces at the Congress of Berlin, and had it been permitted to do so then, in 1878, it would perhaps have been countenanced by Belgrade. But circumstances had changed by 1908. Austria’s seemingly irresistible decline had taken hold, its animosity towards Serbia shown by its actions in the so-called “Pig War”, when it had forbidden the export of Serbian pork through its borders, and the formal annexation of these ethnically Slavic provinces rankled the pan-Slavic radicals of Narodna Odbrana and Black Hand. Matters were not helped by the insistence of the Hungarian ministries that Bosnia and Herzegovina be formally attached to Hungary, not Austria; Hungary’s circumspection in extending equal rights to non-Hungarian ethnicities was well-known among pan-Slavists. Even Archduke Franz Ferdinand recognised the dangers of this, in both a domestic and an international sense; writing to the head of the Military Chancellery, Alexander von Brosch-Aarenau, the heir to the throne noted:

If the annexation has to be realised, I give my assent under only one condition, that both provinces should join the Empire and the crownlands. If Hungary demands that these provinces belong to St. Stephen’s Crown [i.e. Hungary] – and this will happen – we should not yield under any conditions, even if it means evading the annexation and leaving things as they are.

Central to the Hungarian opposition to Bosnia and Herzegovina being joined with Austria (rather than Hungary) was the fact that this would strengthen Slavic influence in Austria. This, however, was precisely what Franz Ferdinand wanted. As has been previously noted, the archduke believed that the Austro-Hungarian Empire required reform at a fundamental level; central to this was his notion of extending electoral franchises to all the major minorities, including Slavs.

Franz Ferdinand was also aware of another danger lurking in the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The archduke differed in many respects from his uncle – indeed, in most matters of state they butted heads, and Franz Ferdinand’s concept of the United States of Great Austria would likely have horrified the old Franz Josef – but in two issues they were of one mind: they both believed in the need to safeguard Austria, and they both believed that Serbia posed an existential threat to their crown. Upon the annexation of the provinces, the archduke wrote to the Austrian foreign minister, Baron von Aehrenthal, congratulating him for “[showing] Europe once again that we are still a great power!” However, he continued, “the main thing is to keep the peace in Bosnia with an iron rod. Any attempt at a putsch or an infiltration by the [Serbs] from across the borders must be met with execution by shooting, hanging etc. We have to keep an especially tight rein on the Serbs […] and every emissary from Serbia must be thrown out forthwith.” The Serbian foreign minister, Milovan Milovanovic, responded in kind: “[O]ne thing I know for certain, I can feel it – that Bosnia and Herzegovina will not remain in Austria’s possession for long. […] I will put my life on it that Bosnia will be free by 1920. Who knows whether any of us will witness it…and who knows how it will all come about?”

Austro-Hungarian hegemony over Bosnia and Herzegovina had caused outrage, and nearly war, in Serbia. In Bosnia, for all Franz Ferdinand’s rhetoric of iron rods and discipline, the situation was not nearly so inflamed as Serbian rhetoric suggested. Little had changed for the peasantry, who were the overwhelming majority of the population, nor for the small but growing bourgeoisie. However, Austrian involvement had brought about an education revolution, and universities had opened their doors to a wider range of students. Much like the undergraduates of Russia, who would be introduced to Marxist theory, Bosnian youths entering university were soon seduced by the allure of nationalist theories, and by the late 1900s there was a growing network of Narodna Odbrana cells within urban Bosnia, with which these radicalised students could make contact. One of these students was named Gavrilo Princip.

Plan and Action.

That Princip’s organisation, Young Bosnia, turned to assassination as a tool of political change is not surprising at all. In 1910, one of their number, Bogdan Zerajic, had attempted to murder the Austro-Hungarian governor of Bosnia, Varesanin, by unloading the magazine of a revolver at him. Zerajic missed with every shot, save the one he reserved for his own temple; nevertheless, he quickly became a martyr to the cause. Varesanin’s eventual replacement, Oskar Potiorek, was similarly a logical target, and there is no doubt that the young radicals who made up Young Bosnia plotted his assassination as well. Yet the assassination, when it came, was not directed against Potiorek, but against Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Habsburg throne himself.

Franz Ferd[inand] of Austria and wife; Countes...

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie. (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

Why Franz Ferdinand was targeted for killing is difficult to say. Young Bosnia may have been enthusiastic, but it was hardly a competent or overly ambitious terrorist group, and choosing to kill the heir to the throne would entail problems far beyond those encountered even in attempting to kill the governor. Franz Ferdinand’s security was likely to be very tight, compared to Varesanin’s. Moreover, Franz Ferdinand was a far more important personage than Varesanin, or Potiorek. His ascension to the throne was only a matter of time, given the advanced years of Franz Josef; his death would therefore attract a much greater Austrian response. Such dangerous, weighty plans were unlikely to originate in Sarajevo, amongst the handful of gun-toting university students.

Across the border in Serbia, however, it was a different story. Bosnia had very little to gain from the death of Franz Ferdinand. Serbia – or, rather, the Serbian state – could hardly countenance such a plan either; if Serbs were found to have been responsible, it would surely mean war, and Pasic and his political allies had tried hard to avoid such a disastrous eventuality for years. But amongst the Serbian nationalists, and particularly amongst the members and sympathisers of the Black Hand, Franz Ferdinand’s upcoming visit to Sarajevo was too tempting an opportunity. The Black Hand stood for the liberation of Slavic territory from under Austro-Hungarian influence, and unification of all the Slavic states under Serbia’s wing. The second necessitated the first, yet this presupposed that the Balkan areas of the Empire would want to secede from Vienna’s leadership. Franz Ferdinand, however, was dynamic, progressive, and reform-minded. His plan for a European United States would extend unprecedented rights to the Slavic people of the Empire. To the proponents of Greater Serbia, the prospect was a nightmare; if they could not entice their fellow Slavs away from Habsburg control, how could they possibly succeed in their ultimate goal? Apis – by now, head of Serbian Intelligence as well as the (supposedly illegal) Ujedinjenje ili smrt! – would no doubt have been aware that, with Franz Ferdinand disposed of, his ambitions to reform the Empire would also die, since the remaining triumvirate – the ailing Franz Josef, the fiercely parochial Hungarian Prime Minister Istvan Tisza, and the mercurial army chief Baron Conrad von Hötzendorf – were all staunchly reactionary traditionalists. Were the reforms to die, so too would the threat to the attractiveness of pan-Slavism.

Deutsch: Dragutin Dimitrijević Српски / Srpski...

Some – including Apis’ biographer, David MacKenzie – suggest another, more pressing motive. Apis may have had delusions of expanding Serbia’s role in the region at the expense of Austria-Hungary, but he was still a Serbian Army officer. Serbia had just fought the two Balkan Wars and, while the country had enjoyed significant victories, the army was by now in terrible disarray, battered and exhausted by years of fighting. If Serbia were compelled now to go to war, it would surely be a catastrophe on an unimaginable scale. According to MacKenzie, Apis may have believed that Franz Ferdinand (who had, during the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, shown no love for the Serbs) was pressing for preemptive war against Serbia. As evidence for this, it had been Franz Ferdinand who had placed Conrad von Hötzendorf at the head of the army, and Hötzendorf was notorious for advocating war against Serbia. Between New Years Day 1913 and New Years Day 1914, for example, Hötzendorf had officially recommended to the Kaiser that Austria-Hungary invade Serbia on no fewer than twenty-five occasions. It is worth noting that, by this point, Hötzendorf had fallen out of favour with Franz Ferdinand, and his insistence on war was so frequent that he was routinely ignored at court. Nonetheless, his previous relationship with the archduke, and his dogmatic approach to the Serbian question, may have led Apis and the Black Hand to the conclusion that Franz Ferdinand would himself soon be pushing for an Austro-Serbian war. Killing him, therefore, might derail or at least delay the Austrian war party, and since Serbia was in such a deplorable state of military readiness, this could prove to be Belgrade’s last, desperate chance.

If MacKenzie is right, and Apis was driven by a fear of Franz Ferdinand declaring war, then Apis woefully miscalculated. Though his rhetoric against the Serbs often took a hard line, the archduke was frequently the voice of reason at the Austrian court, counselling his uncle away from the obstreperous cries for war that emanated from the bellicose Hötzendorf. Indeed, one must wonder how murdering Franz Ferdinand could possibly relieve the threat of war, since Hötzendorf, the most hawkish of Franz Josef’s courtiers, would remain in his role as chief of staff and head of the army. If anything, if Serbia were fingered as the culprit for the assassination attempt, Apis would have all but assured war.

Be this as it may, Apis went ahead with his plan. In order to carry it out, he turned his attention to the ties between the Serbian nationalist organisations, such as Naredna Odbrana and his own Black Hand, and the Young Bosnian group. The plot was to involve only Bosnians, in an effort to obfuscate the role that Serbia played in it. Apis’ planning was quite meticulous; weapons would be shuttled over the border to Bosnia by trusted border guards, illiterate peasants would provide the assassins transport without realising precisely what they were doing. He even procured the services of a second cell of assassins, led by Bosnian Danilo Ilic, with the express aim of misdirecting authorities. Ilic’s cell was made up of loyal Young Bosnians with a proven track record of failure and incompetence; Apis hoped that they would be captured, and since they knew nothing of the true plot, they could hardly betray Apis and the Black Hand as being complicit.

Even in planning, however, we see severe flaws. The assassins to be sent on this mission – Nedeljko Cabrinovic, Trifko Grabez, and Gavrilo Princip – were all Bosnians, but they had all recently spent time in Belgrade. Indeed, at his later trial, Princip would accidentally let slip that Grabez’s more radical views only developed “after he came to Belgrade.” Their handler, Milan Ciganovic, was chosen for being a Bosnian, but he too could easily be traced back to Serbia, since he was not only a member of the Black Hand, but also a worker on the Serbian state railway. Moreover, the weaponry they were provided – revolvers and bombs – had all been procured from the Kragujevac Arsenal, which supplied the Serbian Army. In short, much as Apis wanted to have the finger of blame pointed at local Bosnians, he could not entirely hide the Princip cell’s links to Belgrade. Thus, if Princip and his coconspirators were caught, there was a high probability that the trail might lead Austro-Hungarian authorities back to Serbia.

Regardless of these flaws, the plan went ahead. Princip and his cohort were smuggled across the border. They planned to bomb Franz Ferdinand’s motorcade as it passed them on the Emperor Bridge in Sarajevo – precisely where Bogdan Zerajic had taken his own life, having failed to kill Governor Varesanin.

Serbian Officialdom and the Plot.

The plot to kill Franz Ferdinand involved extraordinary resources and conspiracies. In order for it to succeed, Apis required the complicity of Serbian Army guards. He required the ability to remove weapons from a government arsenal, without raising alarms. He required that known Young Bosnia activists be trained, paid, and prepared for action, all in Serbia. He also extensively used his own, official intelligence network, in order to garner information about the archduke’s visit to Sarajevo. In short, he used resources that were only available to him through official channels.

English: Serbian politician and Primer Ministe...

So, how much can we see the hand of the Serbian government in this plot? At first glance, the conspiracy appears totally out of character for Pasic and his cabinet, who strove to keep Serbia at peace. Through diplomatic links, Pasic could not expect anything but war if Franz Ferdinand were killed and Serbia found complicit, given the known character of Hötzendorf and his retinue. Pasic had time and again shown himself to be a cautious politician, unwilling to take risky, decisive action. Certainly, given all the factors we have mentioned, this particular plan went well beyond “risky”, towards the realm of suicidal insanity.

Yet we cannot entirely absolve Pasic of knowledge. Indeed, we know he knew something. Pasic warned the Serbian cabinet, at least a month before the murder, that a plot was afoot “to go to Sarajevo to kill Franz Ferdinand.” Nor did Pasic think the attack would take place using feather dusters and hope. Throughout May and June 1914, he received reports of weapons being smuggled over the border to Bosnia. The reports had so troubled Pasic that he had ordered the borders closed and the border guards investigated, but this happened more than a fortnight after the first worrying reports had been received, and was therefore a useless measure if the prime minister wished to stop the assassination attempt.

So, the arithmetic confronting Pasic was thus: a plot to kill the heir to the throne of Serbia’s greatest enemy was in the offing. Weapons had been smuggled across the border. Were Franz Ferdinand to be killed, the consequences would be dire. Clearly, Pasic’s only option was to warn Vienna and Sarajevo.

Or was it? For while Serbian complicity in the death of Franz Ferdinand would be catastrophic, for Belgrade to attempt to stop the assassination might have other, more immediate consequences. The Black Hand, it should be remembered, had significant support from that vital powerbroker, the military. Its leader was the head of military intelligence. The preparation for the Princip cell’s mission had only been possible through army complicity. By inference, then, if Black Hand wanted Franz Ferdinand dead, then the army wanted Franz Ferdinand dead. Past experience had shown that the title of prime minister would not be enough to save a politician who strayed into disfavour with the army; one need only recall the horrific bloodbath from Apis’ coup in 1903 to realise the precarious position Pasic would have put himself in, had he betrayed Black Hand’s plot to the Austrians.  And then there was the matter of the Austrians themselves. If Pasic were to warn them, he would have been admitting to a Serbian plot to kill the heir to the throne. In essence, he would be providing Vienna with just what Hötzendorf had wanted for so long: a reason for war.

Therefore, in spite of the danger, Pasic reverted to type. He did nothing, perhaps hoping against hope that the plot would fail, and Serbia’s link to it would not be discovered.


Latin bridge (prev. Princip bridge) in Sarajev...

The Latin Bridge, in Sarajevo, was the site of the ultimately successful assassination. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On 28 June 1914, Sarajevo was bedecked in patriotic imperial bunting, and the streets lined with crowds, to witness the six-vehicle motorcade that carried in its midst Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. As the cars drove along Appel Quay, one of the men in the crowd moved forward, bomb in hand. Nedeljko Cabrinovic hurled the explosive device at the cars but, though it hit Franz Ferdinand’s vehicle, it bounced off the bodywork and exploded underneath the car trailing behind, wounding its passengers as well as several bystanders. Cabrinovic’s next act – an attempt at suicide, to avoid capture – was about as successful as his attempt to kill the archduke. Swallowing cyanide, he threw himself into the Miljaka River. However, the river was only a few centimetres deep, precluding drowning, and the dose of cyanide had degraded, and was so weak that it merely caused him to vomit. While Cabrinovic was pulled from the river and set upon by the enraged crowd, the motorcade sped away, precluding Princip and the remaining conspirators (including Ilic’s cell) from taking action themselves.

Upon arriving at the town hall, the furious and shaken archduke remonstrated with the hapless major of Sarajevo, but soon calmed down. It was then that, in an act of humanity, Franz Ferdinand sealed his own fate. He declared that he would not continue with the official portion of his visit to the Bosnian capital. Instead, he wished to visit the people who had been wounded in the attempt on his life, and pay his respects at the local hospital. Thus resolved, he, Sophie, and Governor Potiorek returned to their car, heading back down towards Appel Quay.

Gavrilo Princip, meanwhile, had slinked away from the site of the botched assassination attempt. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, he intended to rid himself of his weapons and go into hiding. But, as he debated with himself, a car pulled directly in front of him. Franz Ferdinand’s driver, unfamiliar with Sarajevo, had taken a wrong turn and, upon being corrected by Potiorek, attempted to reverse. The confusion left the car stationary for approximately twenty seconds, and it gave Princip the opportunity to draw his revolver, aim at the archduke, and fire. Franz Ferdinand was hit first, but when Princip aimed for Potiorek, he misfired, striking the duchess instead.

The bullet that hit Franz Ferdinand passed through his jugular vein, causing extensive bleeding that could not be staunched. The one intended for Governor Potiorek had passed through Sophie’s side, and though it was not immediately recognised that she had indeed been shot, Sophie was the first to die. As befitting two people in love (as Franz Ferdinand and Sophie certainly were – a rarity for royal couplings at this time), their last thoughts were of each other. Sophie, upon seeing the blood dribbling from the corners of her beloved husband’s mouth, managed to cry out in despair: “My God! What has happened to you?”, before she collapsed to the floor of the car. The archduke, in shock and rapidly losing blood, pleaded with his wife not to die, and to “live for my children”, before he, too, succumbed to his wounds.

English: Soldiers arrest Gavrila Prinzip, assa...

Gavrilo Princip, suffering from self-inflicted cyanide poisoning, is arrested by Austro-Hungarian police after killing Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The heir to the Habsburg throne and his wife were dead, killed by an assassin with a revolver. This alone would have made the shocking event a cause celebre. But the story did not end on the streets of Sarajevo. Authorities reacted quickly; Gavrilo Princip, attempting suicide by cyanide, discovered that his capsule, like Cabrinovic’s, had oxidised, and he was arrested, in excruciating pain but without the comfort of death. With the conspirators in captivity, Pasic’s worst fears were realised. The Austro-Hungarian government immediately suspected Serbian involvement, and with Princip in its hands it had proof. How it would use this proof, and how it would react to the Sarajevo outrage, is the subject of the next post in this series.

Further reading

  • Clark, Christopher. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. London. Allen Lane. 2012.
  • Dedijer, Vladimir. The Road to Sarajevo. London. MacGibbon & Kee. 1967.
  • Glenny, Misha. The Balkans: Nationalism, War, and the Great Powers 1804-2011. New York. Penguin. 2012.
  • MacKenzie, David. Apis: The Congenial Conspirator. The Life of Colonel Dragutin T. Dimitrijevic. New York. Columbia University Press. 1989.
  • MacKenzie, David. The “Black Hand” on Trial. Salonika, 1917. New York. Columbia University Press. 1995.


Filed under 1900-1914

Prewar Years: Russian Empire

A 1912 map of the Russian Empire by Shokalsky,...

The Russian Empire in 1912. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For much of Europe, Russia, far to the east, was a great unknown, and certainly a state possessing major contradictions. Russia’s vast resources – both material and human – had often made it a figure of envy and fear, and many of the diplomatic struggles of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were focused on either currying favour with St. Petersburg, or else avoiding the prospect of war. Russia was the most populous state in Europe, with access to some of the most extensive deposits of oil, coal, metals, and gemstones anywhere on the globe. In the event of war, many spoke with a mixture of admiration and worry about a “Russian steamroller”, a massive army of countless strong, warlike, semi-barbaric young men, who would sweep away everything in their path. This picture was offset, however, by the realities of Russia when viewed in the harsh light of day. Russia was vast, it was true, and it had an enormous population, but that vastness had not given it a decisive advantage in many of the conflicts in which it was involved in the nineteenth century. Moreover, for all that was available to it, Russia was riven with backwardness and inefficiency, both economically and politically. The political system rested uneasily on a difficult, teetering foundation that, while not in immediate danger of collapse, was by no means stable. Also, festering under the surface was horrific social discord and a profound contrast – arguably greater than in any other country – between those who governed and those who were governed. Coupled with the government’s penchant for adventurism, and the state’s deep interests in regions and issues that might bring it into conflict with its neighbours, this meant that the great behemoth in the east of Europe was not a source of surety but of insecurity and uncertainty.

In 1913, the House of Romanov celebrated its tercentenary at the head of the Russian Empire. For three hundred years, it had been a member of this dynasty who had ruled over the vast swathes of territory that stretched from Poland to the Pacific Ocean, and all the hundreds of millions of people who lived within those borders. The pageantry of the occasion, however, belied the deep-seated concerns surrounding the leadership of the latest emperor in the bloodline, Tsar Nicholas II. Nicholas, like his forebears, was an absolute monarch and autocrat. He believed in direct rule, and that the person of the tsar was anointed by God to lead the Empire. In this, he was quite unique among the European leaders. His cousin George V, king of Great Britain, was merely a figurehead, presiding in a mostly ceremonial fashion over a parliamentary form of government. Nicholas’ other cousin, the German Kaiser Wilhelm II, was more central to his nation’s policy-making, but even then he was hardly a monarch without democratic checks and balances, and such was also the case in the Dual Monarchy. Even the Ottoman Empire, so widely derided as a relic of Oriental feudalism (with all the misguided European bigotry that view entailed), had begun dabbling with democracy; a cornerstone of the Young Turk revolt, after all, was a desire to wrest power from the autocratic and incompetent sphere of the sultan, and open it to the pashas and to representatives of the citizenship, elected through limited franchise. On the ascension of Nicholas to the Russian throne in 1894, however, the concept of representative democracy was foreign, dangerous, unthinkable. Nearly twenty years later, as he celebrated his family’s three hundredth jubilee, some circumstances had changed, but the attitude had not.

Nicholas is a truly divisive figure in Russian history – or, indeed, in any history. After his ignominious fall from power in 1917, and his awful fate in 1918, he has been both vilified and lauded; in recent times, he, his wife Alexandra, and his children Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and Alexei, have been canonised by the Moscow synod of the Russian Orthodox Church. Other commentators have labeled him weak, indecisive, disastrously incompetent. There is more than a grain of truth to these charges, but we should perhaps have some sympathy for Nicholas, for many of the problems that were thrown into such sharp relief during his leadership were not of his own making, but were in fact inherited from an already moribund and struggling system.

English: Coronation of Nicholas II and Alexand...

Coronation of Nicholas II and Alexandra Fyodorovna. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nicholas came into the role of tsar almost totally unprepared for it. His father, Tsar Alexander III, was an imperious, controlling personality, who had expected to rule for decades, but his unexpected death, at the young age of just 49, catapulted his 26 year old son on to the throne in 1894, with very little by way of formal political training. What tutelage he had received had been conducted almost entirely by Alexander’s old tutor, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, who had also assumed the role of Nicholas’ private tutor, in addition to his duties as ober-procurator of the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church. As one might expect from these credentials, Pobedonostsev was deeply conservative in his views. He had been a key proponent of Alexander’s plan of “Russification” of the Empire – that is, the removal of ethnic elites and culture within the minority spheres of the Empire, replacing them with Russian administrators and programmes. No longer, for example, would Tartars or Don Cossacks be permitted to speak their own languages, for they would be illegalised and replaced with Russian (it must be remembered that, as of Nicholas’ crowning, just under 50% of the Empire was, in fact, ethnically Russian.) This policy would continue unabated under Nicholas. So, too, would the intrinsic and total belief in the divine right of the tsar. Pobedononstsev, as a deeply religious figure, was convinced that wickedness and corruption was at the very heart of human nature. This, he argued, was the fatal flaw of the many calls for democracy in Russia, for all the granting of political liberty would do would be to concentrate many people, full of wickedness, into positions in which they could manipulate the course of the country. This could only lead Russia to ruin. On the other hand, the tsar was second only to God. He was holy, he had been chosen by God to rule, and so it was not only prudent to continue direct and absolute rule, since this would avoid the concentration of sin, but it was vital, because to do otherwise would be to contravene the will of God.

Konstantin Pobedonostsev (1827-1907)

Konstantin Pobedonostsev. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is no doubt that Nicholas was a devoutly religious man, and there is equally no doubt that he was heavily influenced by Pobedonostsev. Thus, even though he was nervous and hesitant about taking power, even himself recognising that he was not ready to do so, when he did he did it with the conviction that God was on his side, and the alternative – increasing liberalism and the expansion of democratic freedoms, as had been seen in Germany and Britain – was the path to disaster. Thus, for all his self-awareness, Nicholas was sure that there was simply no other option than his total rule. These two principles – the danger of advancing liberties and rights, and the necessity of his own personal command – were the only two significant lessons he had learnt by the time his father died, and they would become defining characteristics of his leadership.

The tsar’s demi-divinity was not merely a matter of faith for Nicholas or Konstantin Pobedonostsev. In fact, when Nicholas took power, there was a genuine and widespread love for the tsar, particularly among the peasantry, which made up significantly more than 80% of Russia’s huge population. Russia lagged far behind the western European states in terms of industrialisation, and thus the mainstay of the economy was farming. However, the Russian countryside was largely feudal, representative of what in the west was a long-gone era. Technically, there had been an emancipation of the serfs (i.e. peasants tied to the land), but in reality the countryside was the picture of serfdom.


In Russian villages, education was non-existent, alcoholism was rife, and domestic violence endemic. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Few peasants owned their own land, and instead worked the properties of wealthy landowners, who were generally members of the aristocracy and nobility. Life in villages was difficult, brutal, and often short. Medical care was virtually non-existent, as was education. For the vast majority of peasants, life was defined entirely by the family unit and the village; very few peasants, owing to their isolation, had even a concept of being Russian, or even were familiar with what Russia was. Illiteracy was a chronic condition, and life expectancy was low. Throughout all of this, resentment festered towards the landowner class, which profited from the toils of the peasants who worked but did not own the land. Crucially, however, this resentment and anger was not aimed at the person of the tsar. Much as Pobedonostsev believed in the infallibility of the tsar, so too did the peasantry; the tsar was the “Little Father”, with the “Big Father”, of course, being God in Heaven. The ills of the countryside, the peasants decided, were due only to the landowners and their lackeys, who were deceiving the tsar as to the true conditions of Russian agriculture. A common conception of the peasantry was that their lives would improve if only the tsar were aware of their trials and tribulations. Thus, no matter how bad conditions were, the tsar was genuinely beloved by the majority of his subjects. Certainly, there was a revolutionary movement – including a nascent but weak Marxist organisation, the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party (RSDLP), which in 1903 split into two parties, the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks – but these were limited to the much smaller bourgeoisie and intelligentsia. As far as the vast proportion of the population was concerned, their tsar was a benevolent leader, second only to God, and worthy of their devotion.

Circumstances were to change, however, in the first half of the first decade of the twentieth century. Part of the impetus for this came not from internal hardships, which were bad enough, but from the consequences that arose from a series of Russian foreign policy blunders that, in turn, caused problems at home.

A problem faced by Russia on the international stage was that, for all its vastness, it was often adversely affected by its own winter. This was particularly the case for the Russian Navy, which wanted for clear water ports that would be free of ice. This was already a problem in the west, since the key ports (Murmansk, Arkangel’sk, etc.) were subject to icing in winter, while Odessa and Sebastopol, by dint of Russia’s difficult diplomatic situation viz. Turkey, were not easy solutions to the issue. Problems were more acute on the Pacific coast, where Russia’s only deepwater port, Vladivostok, suffered the same icing conditions. On the other hand, the navy saw the occupation of Port Arthur (now Lüshunkou), on the Korean peninsula, as a workable solution, since it would be open all year. This, however, brought St. Petersburg into competition with Tokyo; the Japanese felt that their own interests in the region would be threatened by a Russian consolidation on the peninsula and, in a series of negotiations between 1903 and 1904, attempted to come to some form of agreement with their Russian counterparts. Both sides were intractable, though, and a series of failed negotiations finally led to the Japanese losing patience. On 8 February 1904, a Japanese fleet arrived off Port Arthur, damaging seven of the Russian Pacific Squadron contingent there, and blockading the port. Consequently, the Japanese besieged Port Arthur, and the Russians devoted their war effort to lifting that siege. Nicholas entered the war convinced that his forces would prevail, given the fact that Japan was a non-European power (none of which had ever overcome a European imperial power in war before), as well as his concerted belief both that God was on his side, and that the Japanese, as Asians, were inferior to the Russians. This confidence was misplaced. Within months, Russia had suffered tremendous defeats. On land, the army attempting to relieve Port Arthur was mauled by a Japanese force half its size at Liaoyang. At sea, the Pacific Squadron’s August 1904 attempt to break through the Japanese blockade was indecisive. Other actions, both on land and at sea, also ended in heavy defeats.

Retreat of the Russian Army after the Battle o...

The Russian Army retreats after being trounced by the Japanese at Mukden. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In late February 1905, a large Russian army was decisively beaten, with nearly 90,000 casualties, near Mukden in Manchuria. In late May, a large Russian fleet arrived in the Pacific to challenge the Japanese and lift the siege of Port Arthur. The fleet had come from the Baltic Sea, and had taken six months to navigate through the Baltic, through the southern Atlantic, around the Horn of Africa, through the Indian Ocean, and into the Tsushima Straits. However, the long voyage had left the Russian fleet, made up of some 28 ships (including the four most modern battleships in the tsar’s navy), short on supplies and poorly maintained. During the night of 27-28 May, the newly arrived fleet was set upon by a Japanese task force that consisted mostly of small torpedo boats; the resulting battle left the entire Baltic Fleet either at the bottom of the Tsushima Straits, or else captured, and approximately 10,000 sailors killed or captured, while the Japanese lost just three torpedo boats and some 100 sailors. The battle, so phenomenally decisive, was considered by many to be the most important naval engagement since Trafalgar, and it crushed Russia’s naval power.

Russia’s war effort had unintended consequences. In the cities, the public had expected a short war with little privation, but as more and more troops were sent via the Trans-Siberian Railway to their deaths, the domestic economic situation began to worsen. Food from the countryside was shunted towards the faraway front, bypassing the cities, and particularly having a tremendous impact on the working class and urban poor, who already suffered horrendous working and living conditions. Consequently, on Sunday 22 January 1905, a demonstration of some 150,000 workers took to the streets of St. Petersburg, marching towards the Winter Palace. The demonstration was led by an Orthodox priest, Father Georgi Gapon, who worked closely with the workers in St. Petersburg. It would be incorrect to term the 22 January demonstrations a protest, since the workers carried placards praising the royal family, sang patriotic songs, and carried a petition which specifically stated their belief that the tsar could and would help them in their plight. As they approached the Winter Palace, however, they were met by a line of soldiers, with orders not to allow the demonstrators near the palace gates. As more and more workers crowded into the square before the palace, the troops opened fire.

Русский: Картина неизвестного художника "...

Father Gapon leads demonstrators to the Winter Palace on 22 January 1905. Most were singing patriotic songs, such as “God Save the Tsar.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The immediate importance of 22 January has, in some ways, been overstated in some histories. The number of casualties suffered is disputed – some sources place the numbers well in the many thousands – but it is unlikely that any more than 300 people died in the snow in front of the palace. But, regardless of the fact that the deaths were much lower than reported, these events – forever immortalised as “Bloody Sunday” – changed the very nature of the relationship between the governing autocracy and the people. Gapon, who had begun his petition by assuring the tsar that “the people believe in thee”, saw his faith in the Little Father shattered. Writing just hours after he had escaped the bloodshed outside the Winter Palace, Gapon attacked the “beast tsar and his jackal ministers.” Indeed, the response of the people as a whole to this ghastly massacre of innocents – for, regardless of the lower casualty figures, it must be remembered as such – reflected Gapon’s own urges to “tear up all portraits of the bloodsucking tsar and say to him: be thou damned with all thine august reptilian progeny!” For the people as a whole, the comforting fiction of the Little Father had been torn away. To them, it was clear now that the tsar did know of their terrible living conditions. Worse, he was not willing to help them, and in fact sought to beat them down further. The fact that the tsar was actually at his retreat at Tsarskoye Selo on the day, and not in residence at the Winter Palace, made little difference. All at once, the great resentments against the inadequacies of the regime bubbled to the surface and exploded in a torrent of violence and unrest. Riots erupted in the industrial centres of St. Petersburg and Moscow. Some 400,000 workers in St. Petersburg alone went on strike within weeks of Bloody Sunday. In the countryside, law and order ceased to exist; between January and October, the army was called in to quell peasant riots more than 2,700 times, and more than 3,000 manor houses belonging to landowners were burned and destroyed.

The regime’s response to this revolution was gradual, brutal, but ultimately – for the short term, at least – successful. The tsar made use of the army to put down rebellions in the provinces and on the streets. To that end, the conclusion of the Russo-Japanese War was a top priority, and in September 1905 a peace treaty, generally unfavourable to the Russians but ending the hostilities, was signed in Portsmouth. This allowed troops, freshly demobilised in the east, to return to the home front to bolster the ranks combatting rioters. Moreover, while the revolts had begun as part of a mass movement, they lacked direction or unity. Workers in Petersburg, for example, rebelled for entirely different reasons to, and with no coordination with, peasants in Ukraine, or even workers in Moscow. This made the revolution vulnerable, and the language of revolution was soon co-opted by educated political reformers in the cities, who wished for liberal reform and saw no good as coming from unbridled rebellious violence. Thus, by October, the tsar had (reluctantly) put his name to the so-called October Manifesto, granting the formation of an advisory legislative parliament, or Duma. The chief powerbrokers of this new Duma would be politicians from two major political factions – the Octobrists, who saw the way forward for Russia as coming through precisely this form of parliamentary monarchy, and the Kadets (or Constitutional Democrats), who favoured further reforms (and – as far as some were concerned – the eventual creation of a republic). Crucially, in spite of the republican tendencies of some of the Kadets, these two parties were committed to reform within the system – that is, cooperating with the tsar. This took the sting out of the tail of the faltering revolution, which wound down by the end of the year. With the immediate danger now gone, but unable to renege on his promise for the creation of a Duma, Nicholas II introduced a new constitution, the “Fundamental Laws”, which clarified the powers of the Duma. Effectively, the Fundamental Laws emasculated the liberal parliament, relegating it to nothing more than a consultative body, over which the tsar retained supreme power. By and large, then, the regime had emerged from the crises of 1904 and 1905 relatively unscathed.

Or had it? Certainly, the tsar had been able to reassert his power, while at the same time providing the impression of liberal reform. But lasting damage had been done, both at home and abroad. At home, the image of the tsar as a devoted Little Father was forever destroyed by the horrors of Bloody Sunday and the year to follow. Like Father Gapon, workers and peasants alike now disabused themselves of the notion that the tsar was a benevolent, God-given leader, and began to see him as simply the highest man in the same system that had kept them poor, unhealthy, uneducated, and without any political representation. In the cities, this discontent manifested itself in the slow but steady growth of so-called “workers’ councils”, or Soviets, which acted as political action groups for disenfranchised proletarian workers. These would become extremely important in the future of Russia, and especially during the crisis year of 1917.

Speech from the Throne by Emperor Nicholas II ...

Nicholas II opens the first Duma in April 1906. In spite of the fanfare, the parliament had been largely neutered by the introduction of the Fundamental Laws. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The concessions that the tsar had made, moreover, were merely a stopgap solution to a more significant problem that he failed to grasp. The Duma was a safety valve, its members committed reformists but (in general) loyal tsarists. Yet Nicholas, trained by Pobedonostsev to be suspicious of democracy, sought from day one to negate even the very limited power afforded the parliament. This had the potential to alienate even the tsar’s most trenchant supporters. This reaction against moderation can also be seen in the tsar’s dealings with his post-revolution prime minister, Peter Stolypin, whose raft of economic and social reforms had the potential to modernise Russia into a formidable, far more stable industrial power. Nicholas, however, frustrated Stolypin at nearly every turn, and most of the prime minister’s policies were stillborn. There is even some suggestion that Stolypin’s assassination in Kiev in September 1911 had, in fact, been committed by the Russian political police (the Okhrana), on the orders of the tsar himself. While this has never been proven, it is known that the investigation into the murder was halted on the official order of Nicholas. Perhaps, Nicholas saw Stolypin as a political threat, or simply a distraction from his divine right. If indeed there is any truth to the suggestion of Nicholas’ culpability in Stolypin’s murder, it is incontrovertible that the tsar thus denied himself the counsel of one of the most brilliant political minds of the era, whose reform programmes boded well for the future – providing they had the support they required.

Internationally, these years were damaging to Russia. It has been suggested – most recently, by Christopher Clark – that the French alliance with the Russians was designed so that the French could restrain what they saw as reckless Russian foreign adventurism. There may be some truth to this, but if so, it did not succeed. Russia’s war with Japan was misbegotten from the beginning, based more upon racist ideas and delusions of divinity than political expedience or military prowess. The damage wrought on the Russian fleet removed the tsar’s navy as an instrument of foreign policy. Even worse, while the tsar was grappling with both the Japanese and his own subjects, he was also busily antagonising other European powers. The Baltic Fleet, which departed on its ill-fated odyssey to Tsushima, had been projected to pass through the British-controlled Suez Canal. However, upon leaving the Baltic, the fleet’s spotters had mistaken British fishing trawlers for Japanese torpedo boats (which had, in the imaginations of these officers, somehow skirted around the world to do battle with them at this very moment), and had opened fire on the civilian craft. The incident nearly sparked war with Britain, and while this was narrowly averted, the passage through the Suez was denied, condemning the fleet to a far longer voyage (which may well have contributed to its total destruction.) Moreover, Russian paternalistic, pan-slavic policy in the Balkans had led it to offer constant encouragement to Serbia in its long-running war of nerves with Austria-Hungary. This, naturally, caused ill feeling in Vienna, and both Austria and Austria’s ally, Germany, increasingly saw Nicholas as a deliberate instigator for the deteriorating diplomatic conditions in the Balkans. As a result, Vienna frequently sought guarantees from Berlin that, were St. Petersburg to take precipitous action against Austria-Hungary, Germany would rush to Austria’s defence. This, and Russia’s growing reliance on French capital for rearmament in the face of the tremendous losses to the Japanese, severely increased the level of danger in the Balkan region.

English: Engagement official picture of Tsar N...

Tsar Nicholas II and his Tsaritsa, Alexandra. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thus, when Nicholas and Alexandra celebrated the three hundredth Romanov jubilee, they did so presiding over a country that had nearly torn itself apart, only to paper over the cracks while hoping for the best. Underneath the thin coat of recovery, however, the state continued to decay. At the same time, while Russia had secured an alliance with the French, its foreign policy was confused, arrogant, and frequently dangerous. Not all of these problems were of Nicholas’ making. But it would have taken a quite extraordinarily astute leader to see the way clear to resolving Russia’s mounting issues, and Nicholas, in spite of the assiduous teaching of Konstantin Pobedonostsev, was neither extraordinary nor astute. His failings, and those of his country, would only be exacerbated during and after the July Crisis of 1914, and the seeds of his own, tragic fate in a dark cellar in Ekaterinburg in 1918 can be traced back to the very origins of his rule.


Filed under 1900-1914

Prewar Years: Austria-Hungary

English: The ethnic groups of Austria-Hungary ...

Austria-Hungary. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of all the nations in Europe, arguably it was Austria-Hungary that was in the most confused geopolitical and social position. Considered one of the world’s preeminent powers until its inglorious defeat at the hands of Prussia in 1866, Vienna had limped into the twentieth century riven with social unrest, economic inefficiency, and critical military and political weaknesses. Much like the Ottoman Empire, the Habsburg Monarchy was considered to be a dying power, an anachronism in a modern era. But looks can be deceptive, and Austria-Hungary actually began a programme of renewal and modernisation that promised the streamline the Empire and strengthen its position. Furthermore, while the emperor, Franz Josef, was a reactionary of the old authoritarian monarchical style, his heir apparent, his nephew Franz Ferdinand, was an avowed reformer who had significant, even revolutionary plans for safeguarding the future of his dynasty’s empire. A ramshackle empire it may have been, but Austria-Hungary was hardly in a state of imminent collapse. The tribulations it might face, though, were complex and dangerous; it is no coincidence that the trigger for the conflict that would erupt in 1914 was triggered by Austria-Hungary, and not by one of its supposedly more influential rivals.

In retrospect, Austria’s great-power status was always, to some extent, built upon illusion. The Austrian Army had been feted as one of the heroes of the war against Napoleon between 1801 and 1815, though the brunt of the fighting had been shouldered by Russia, Prussia, and Britain. Throughout the nineteenth century, Austria was viewed as the powerbroker in the German region, though when its supposed military prowess was tested, invariably it was found wanting. It has become convention to write of southern Germany as though those states were dependable allies for Vienna, but this was not always the case; throughout the 1830s, for instance, France seemed likely to go to war with Austria, and Baden and Württemberg, at least, had opened negotiations with Paris to allow its troops safe passage towards Austria. In 1848, the same revolutions that swept Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte to power in France also swept away the conservative leadership of Clemens von Metternich in Austria, and from then on Austria increasingly relied on its old, earned prestige, rather than actual power, in order to extend its will. The only reason Austria was not totally crushed in the Second Italian War of Independence in 1859 was that French forces were just as corrupt and incompetent as their Austrian opponents; victory in the Danish War of 1864 came largely because Denmark was tiny in comparison; war with Prussia in 1866 proved to be an unmitigated disaster. By 1867, the Austrian Kaiser, Franz Josef, admitted to the opening of parliament that the economy, exhausted by years of struggle, had stagnated, and Austria must henceforth remove itself from international affairs.

Coronation FOR KING AND QUEEN of HUNGARY of Em...

The crowning of Franz Josef and Elisabeth as king and queen of Hungary. A necessary part of the Ausgleich, the coronation meant that Franz Josef was emperor of Austria as well as Hungary’s monarch. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was the pressures of these years that led to a dramatic reorganisation of the state. Previously, the Austrian Empire held sway over large tracts of territory, stretching through Germany, Italy, Hungary, and towards the Balkans. By the end of 1866, Germany had been torn from Vienna’s grasp, Italy was no longer in its sphere of influence, and Magyar nationalists in Hungary began to agitate for their own independent state. Magyar nationalism had, in fact, nearly achieved this goal in 1848, but the Hungarian Revolution had been brutally crushed by the army. In 1848, Austria had still been a great power; in 1867, that status was largely a fiction. In an effort to stem the tide, Austrian politicians (particularly the Saxon-born chancellor, Friedrich Ferdinand von Beust) found unlikely allies in the more moderate Hungarian particularists, who saw some benefits to Hungary remaining tied to Austria, but argued that domestic Hungarian issues should be divested to the purview of Hungarians. This led to the “Compromise” (Ausgleich), an agreement between Austria and Hungary that united the two portions of the empire as a semi-autonomous dual monarchy, with the Austrian Kaiser, Franz Josef, now acting as both the emperor of Austria and the king of Hungary. Hence, from 1867 until 1918, the Austrian Empire had become the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Ausgleich had been a political masterstroke that saved the empire from disintegration in its darkest hours of economic destitution and political fragility. However, as a compromise, it was merely intended as a stopgap solution until a better opportunity presented itself. This opportunity never came. As a result, the political situation in Austria-Hungary remained precarious. Hungary had gained significant ground with few checks or balances. This often meant that, though Austria – the more prosperous core of the state – might wish to assert itself in some manner on the world stage, it was often restrained by the less adventurous Hungarian diet. Moreover, while the Compromise committed Austria-Hungary to a recognition of the rights of ethnic minorities in the Empire, the Hungarian powerbrokers soon discovered that they cherished their newfound influence, and consequently were unwilling to dilute that influence by extending those selfsame rights to other ethnic groups. Because of this, a distinct segregation of rights occurred, whereby Austrian Germans and Magyars were afforded significant freedoms and power, but other ethnic groups, such as the Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Poles, and various Slavic peoples, enjoyed barely any representation at all at a national political level. This lack of representation was instituted not merely by omission but also by design. In 1881, for example, the Croat Catholic bishop, Josip Strossmayer, announced his intention to petition for masses to be held in Slavic languages in Slavic-speaking districts of the Empire. This was opposed, not by the Vatican (which may well have opposed the idea based on the primacy of Latin in Catholic liturgy), but by the Hungarian Prime Minister Kálmán Tisza, who worried that the extension of religious rights to Slavs might encourage them to seek extended political and social rights as well. Moreover, Austria-Hungary’s administration and, later, annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina was only made possible by the posting of a large military garrison willing to crush the resistance of the local population, who had, in the main, hoped that their liberation from the Ottoman Empire might have led to their integration into Serbia. Nationalist demonstrations were not uncommon in the frontier cities of the client states of the Empire, including Prague, Sarajevo, or Bratislava.

Elizabeth -- Murdered Empress of Austria  (LOC)

Kaiserin Elisabeth, or “Sisi” as she was familiarly known. Her murder in Geneva, at the hands of an Italian anarchist, shocked Europe, and crushed Franz Josef. (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

This rebellious character of the subject peoples also laid the Empire open to the danger of terrorism. The Empress Elisabeth had been murdered by an Italian anarchist in 1898, and threats against members of the royal family were not uncommon. Another difficulty of the multiethnic character of the Empire was one of pragmatism. In the main, the officers of the Austro-Hungarian Army were Austrian Germans, and German was the language of the officer corps. This was not so in the rank and file, which was a veritable melting pot of linguistic and national difference. Consequently, in times of war, it was to be expected that the soldiers being given orders by the officers would not, in fact, understand those orders, for the simple reason that they did not understand the language in which those orders were given.

It is often easy to overstate the problems facing Austria-Hungary as it entered the twentieth century. The bare facts are indeed a cause for some foreboding. There were, in fact, no fewer than twelve major ethnic groups in Austria-Hungary (and countless, less influential ones), and together, Austrian Germans and Magyars accounted for significantly less than fifty percent of the population. The majority (made up of a plethora of minorities), therefore, were largely denied rights that were extended to the minority. And, indeed, this often led to violence. Riots were not an everyday occurrence, but they were regular enough so as not to be extraordinary. But it is important to recognise that few of the nationalists agitated for separation from the Empire – and those who did were largely the radical revolutionaries who desired sweeping, profound change. For most, the Empire offered security and stability. Ruthenians in Galicia, for instance, were under no illusions that, if they were to carve out their own, independent state, it could survive financially, without the backing and support of the Empire. Nor could such small, new states protect themselves from the circling vultures of fledgling European countries looking to assert themselves, such as Italy (which had already fought and beaten the Ottoman Empire, and had cast a jealous eye on Austro-Hungarian possessions in Dalmatia), or Serbia (which aimed to unite the Slavic people under the banner of “Greater Serbia”, by force if necessary.) Even Bosnia and Herzegovina, where there was certainly some unrest, and which would become the point of crisis that would lead to war, enjoyed great improvement to the standard of living, the output of agriculture, and the emancipation of the peasantry from serfdom. Indeed, for all the criticism of the Dual Monarchy, its rule was not tremendously authoritarian or repressive, by the standards of the day.

What this meant to the Empire was that, even though it did have some problems, they were not necessarily fatal ones. Historians have often pointed to its unsure multiethnicity, to the poor economic conditions, or to the Empire’s military decline. David Lloyd George, who would become Britain’s prime minister in the latter phases of the First World War, called Austria-Hungary “that ramshackle realm”, and to some extent he was correct. But ‘ramshackle’ does not mean ‘doomed.’ For all its flaws, the Empire had some sense of communalism, even among the ethnic minorities who agitated for greater freedoms, and its economy, which had indeed stagnated in the late 1860s, had begun a slow but distinct recovery as of the first decade of the twentieth century. Moreover, for the fractious state of national politics, there may have been some respite on the horizon.

English: Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria w...

Archduke Franz Ferdinand – heir to the Habsburg throne. A reformer at heart, Franz Ferdinand wished to extend rights to minorities in the Empire, and wanted to restrain Hötzendorf’s constant counsel of war. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Franz Josef was for many a beloved and capable emperor. But he was also old, increasingly out of touch with the changes occurring around him, and unwilling to rock the status quo, lest it cause considerable social and political problems in the last years of his reign. His reticence may also have been fueled by a deep moroseness. In 1889, his son, Crown Prince Rudolf, shot both himself and his lover, Baroness Mary Vetsera, at Rudolf’s hunting lodge at Mayerling. The murder-suicide apparently shattered Franz Josef, who then suffered the tragedy of the murder of his wife, Elisabeth, nine years later. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Franz Josef was from then on a figure of melancholy, and this, as well as his advanced years, could account for his inertia as head of state. In any event, his constant deferral to Istvan Tisza, the Hungarian prime minister, continued the dominion of the Magyar elites over the minorities of Hungary, in spite of the law insisting otherwise. But Franz Josef would not live forever, and his heir – his nephew, Franz Ferdinand – was a very different man. Franz Ferdinand had thrown himself energetically into questions of domestic and foreign politics. He was aware of Austria-Hungary’s decline, and to that end he felt that the adventurism displayed, for example, by the head of the army, Baron Conrad von Hötzendorf, had to be restrained, and Austria-Hungary had to, somehow, come to agreements with even its most intractable foes. This would free up his plans for internal reform, which were nothing less than radical. Franz Ferdinand intended to dispose of the 1867 Ausgleich; in its place, he hoped to extend federative rights to further ethnic groups in the Empire, effectively elevating them to the same status as the Austrian Germans and the Magyars. His end goal – a fifteen-state “United States of Great Austria” – would be a political earthquake in central Europe. It would break the Hungarian stranglehold on Austro-Hungarian politics, and it would provide a political franchise for those minorities – including Bosnians, Croats, and Czechs – who had been the most vocally oppositional to the Habsburg leadership of the Empire. In short, Franz Ferdinand expected not to collapse the Empire, but to change its very nature to a representational democracy more in keeping with that of France than the limited franchise of the Ausgleich had ever allowed. While the project never came to fruition, as Franz Ferdinand was murdered before he could ascend to the throne, his programme was one of exciting and far-reaching reform, which could – perhaps – have safeguarded the foreseeable future of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Austro-Hungarian Field Artillery

Despite its long tradition, the Austro-Hungarian Army was in a moribund state by the twentieth century. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One thing that would not have changed, though, was Austria’s increasing reliance on Germany. The Dual Monarchy’s military weakness was no secret, and faced with belligerent neighbours – especially Serbia, with its powerful Russian benefactor – Austria was largely dependent on Germany to provide assurances of its security. This was no doubt helped by the fact that Franz Ferdinand and Wilhelm II were close friends; thus, even had Franz Ferdinand been on the throne, and his “United States” created, we should expect that the Central Powers of Austria-Hungary and Germany would have remained as tied to one another as they were while Franz Josef ruled. Yet, in the final analysis, it was Austria-Hungary’s strained relations with Serbia and Russia, and Germany’s unquestioning support of a nation in mourning, champing at the bit for revenge, that would prove the terrible trigger for the Great War.

Austria-Hungary, then, is one of the more interesting case studies of prewar states. Deeply flawed, but with roads towards recovery, the Dual Monarchy stumbled its way towards redemption, all the while beset by internal and external emergencies. Eventually, though, it was one emergency – the assassination of the very man who promised salvation for the Empire – that would lead to its annihilation.

Further reading

  • Clark, Christopher. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. London. Allen Lane. 2012.

  • May, Arthur J. The Hapsburg Monarchy 1867-1914. New York. W.W. Norton & Company. 1951.

  • Palmer, Alan. Twilight of the Habsburgs: The Life and Times of Emperor Francis Joseph. New York. Atlantic Monthly Press. 1994.

  • Stevenson, David. With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918. London. Penguin. 2012.

  • Williamson, Samuel R. Austria-Hungary and the Origins of the First World War. New York. St. Martin’s Press. 1991.


Filed under 1900-1914