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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.