Johns Hopkins University Press
  • The Habsburg Monarchy and World War I:Integration, Disintegration, and Demise
Forging a Multinational Empire: State Making in Imperial Austria from the Enlightenment to the First World War. By John Deak. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015. Pp. 376. Cloth $70.00. ISBN 978-0804795579.
The Habsburg Empire: A New History. By Pieter M. Judson. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2018. Pp. 592. Paper $21.95. ISBN 978-0674986763.
Military Culture and Popular Patriotism in Late Imperial Austria. By Laurence Cole. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. 320. Cloth $120.00. ISBN 978-0199672042.
Stehen oder Fallen. Österreichische Politik im Ersten Weltkrieg. By Lothar Höbelt. Vienna: Böhlau, 2015. Pp. 323. Cloth €45.00. ISBN 978-3205796503.
Der Erste Weltkrieg und das Ende der Habsburgermonarchie 1914–1918. By Manfried Rauchensteiner. Vienna: Böhlau, 2013. Pp. 1222. Cloth €45.00. ISBN 978-3205782834.
A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire. By Geoffrey Wawro. New York: Basic Books, 2014. Pp. 472. Paper $14.99. ISBN 978-0465080816.

There was a time when many portrayed the Habsburg Monarchy of the early twentieth century as yet another sick man of Europe. A remnant of the dynastic conglomerate states of earlier epochs, it no longer fit into the new world of middle-class societies and their core tenets of liberalism and nationalism. Its dissolution was just a matter of time. This perspective was widely propagated by the activists who promoted the monarchy's replacement by nation-states, but it also reverberated in interwar scholarship. Oscar Jászi set the tone with his influential 1929 tome The Dissolution of the Habsburg Monarchy.1 In this work, the émigré Habsburg scholar ascribed the demise of the Dual Monarchy to its failure to adjust to the new realities of domestic and international politics. The monarchy did not merely fall because of external events such as World War I but owed its collapse to a much longer history of disintegration. It was not a [End Page 149] mechanical but an organic process and largely caused by flawed governance. Habsburg leaders relied on dynastic patriotism to combat cultural nationalism and failed to install an overarching state identity.

Over the decades, interpretations have changed. Newer studies have taken a more positive view of the monarchy. Much of this reorientation has been connected with the increasing diversification of Western societies and the corresponding challenges to the concept of nation-states. The rise of a supranational association such as the European Union renewed interest in the Habsburg experience, which seemed to offer visible parallels. The historical debate merged into contemporary politics.

As a consequence, the demise of the Habsburg Monarchy continues to evoke strong feelings and conflicting interpretations. This article reviews six recent studies that have reenergized the scholarly debate. They encompass a variety of approaches, ranging from synthesizing interpretations of the Habsburg idea via monographic studies of state- and identity-building in the late monarchy to narrowly subscribed analyses of the monarchy's response to the challenges of a world war. These monographs differ not only in subject matter and approach, however, but also in assessment and evaluation. In what follows I search for commonalities among these different accounts while at the same time doing justice to the breadth of interpretation they offer. Like the Habsburg Monarchy itself, its historians need to navigate the promises and challenges of diversity.

State-Building and Identity Formation

In Forging a Multinational Empire, John Deak examines the Habsburg Monarchy through the prism of state-building. The American historian argues that the Habsburg Monarchy fully partook in the modernization process that transformed European societies in the 1800s. He rejects conventional assumptions that the Habsburg polity was little more than a medieval holdover and an obstacle to European development. Such simplifications are not only factually incorrect, Deak argues, but restrict the course of Western civilization to the budding nation-states of the European West. The eastern half of the continent, including the Habsburg Monarchy, is thereby largely written out of this narrative.

Deak proposes an alternative way of looking at European history, divorced from narratives that privilege the rise of nation-states. Citing Tony Judt, he compares the Habsburg Monarchy to the European Union of our age and defines it as an attempt to create efficient and rational government that puts the rule of law above particularist interests (5). Deak's analysis highlights the state-building efforts in the Habsburg Monarchy, undertaken by a succession of rulers dating back all the way to Maria Theresa. He focuses on the Viennese center, personified by the leading reformers and their supporters in the imperial bureaucracy between 1740 and 1914. In the process, he also tries to redeem this bureaucracy and liberate it from its reputation [End Page 150] as a hindrance to genuine democracy. In his eyes, the bureaucracy was the true pillar of the polity, and even the dominant monarchical figure of its final decades, Emperor Francis Joseph, was at heart a bureaucrat (1).

The origins of Habsburg modernization and state-building lay in defeat. The existential crisis of the dynasty at the passage from Charles VI to his daughter Maria Theresa in 1740 demonstrated the need for fundamental reforms. Both Maria Theresa and her son Joseph accepted the challenge and found congenial advisers to design and implement them. They initiated a process characterized by an interplay of storm and tranquility, reform and preservation. Nowhere was this duality more visible than during the tumultuous years following the popular uprisings of 1848, in which Count Franz Stadion tried to tame both revolution and counterrevolution. As secretary of the interior, he was committed to both the bureaucracy and the new parliament. Rejecting the established interpretation, Deak does not see the suppression of the liberal insurgents as the victory of a counterrevolution, but rather as the victory of an alternative administrative and centralizing revolution (79). Stadion implemented this philosophy through a dual-track administration, which created parallel political and administrative arrangements and reflected the principle that mass politics required bureaucratic oversight. Elected councils were balanced by administrative offices. Although Stadion's constitution was soon gutted and rescinded, his dual structure came to define the final, constitutional period of Habsburg Austria, which after the compromise of 1867 only encompassed one half of the rearranged Dual Monarchy.

Retaining his focus on the Viennese center, Deak tones down the significance of national and linguistic differences within public administration. He has to concede, however, that nationalist parties increasingly secured bureaucratic positions for their sympathizers. The government was forced to remind its civil servants that the nature of their position demanded political restraint (221). Following Prime Minister Count Kasimir Badeni's language ordinances for Bohemia and Moravia in 1897, the national composition of the civil service even emerged as a central point of dispute, pitting Czech and German activists against each other and paralyzing the parliament in Vienna. Yet Deak also sees this crisis as the catalyst of a new era of accommodation, in which public administrators served as mediators and adjudicators of interest-group conflict. This central role of the bureaucracy also expressed itself in governments staffed by civil servants.

In spite of this long—and in Deak's eyes fairly efficient—process of state-building, the Habsburg Monarchy fell within just four years of war. The outbreak of the fighting pushed aside the bureaucrats and promoted the officers. War did not continue the process of state-making but rather ended it (274).

Deak makes a forceful case. He sees the Habsburg Monarchy as an example to be emulated in principle, to be learned from and improved in practice. He may overrate the novelty of his arguments in favor of the monarchy's viability, which have become [End Page 151] so commonplace that they have already brought forth a comprehensive synthesis. That work was accomplished by Pieter Judson, spiritus rector of a new brand of international Habsburg scholarship.

In The Habsburg Empire Judson investigates how countless local societies across central Europe engaged with the dynasty's efforts to build a unified state from the eighteenth century to World War I. He concedes that this Habsburg state-building was promoted by political elites but insists on the substantive contribution of numerous ordinary citizens. Judson consciously places the empire and its institutions at the center of analysis, rather than the ethnolinguistic entities whose titular nation-states ultimately succeeded it.

The concept of empire is central to Judson's analysis: he defines his book as an argument about the character, development, and enduring legacies of empire in Central and Eastern Europe (12). As a consequence, he also derives political nationalism in the Habsburg lands from imperial structures and regional traditions rather than from transhistorical ethnic groups. In fact, he regularly emphasizes that the national movements of nineteenth-century Europe were middle-class phenomena that did not appreciably touch the rural masses they purported to represent. Judson firmly opposes the numerous historians who have argued that the coexistence of different language groups posed an intrinsic challenge to a dynastic conglomerate in an era of mass politics. Judson, by contrast, sees such conflicts as primarily political rather than cultural.

The idiosyncratic nature of the monarchy, Judson contends, has been exaggerated. When Habsburg monarchs such as Maria Theresa and Joseph II implemented their administrative reforms during the mid and late 1700s, they were part of a wider European development. Other European countries were politically, culturally, and constitutionally diverse as well. And just like their peers in other countries, Habsburg elites also initiated more or less successful attempts at modernization and state-building.

Judson acknowledges the rise of nationalist arguments in the final decades of the Habsburg Monarchy but does not see nationalism as a unique force of political mobilization. Rather, he puts it into a broader context of cultural discourse, in which liberals as well as nationalists, Catholics as well as patriotic monarchists, defined themselves as either communities under siege or the instruments of popular liberation. Nationalism was just one expression of community among several. In fact, ideologies of nationhood and empire began to depend on each other for explanatory coherence (331).

Judson emphatically dismisses a narrative of inevitable decline. He argues that the Habsburg Monarchy has too often been interpreted according to the nationalist ideologies of its successor states. Its distinctiveness did not lie in a failure to unify its diverse populations, but in the positive ways in which it negotiated its cultural differences [End Page 152] (451f.). As a consequence, Judson arrives at a much more favorable assessment of the Habsburg Monarchy and its viability.

Laurence Cole examines the internal cohesion of the monarchy through a different lens, exploring the interplay of popular patriotism and military culture in late imperial Austria. He therefore focuses on expressions of military culture that also formed an integral part of civil society. The military emerges as one of the central pillars of the Habsburg regime, at least in the Austrian half of the empire that is examined in Cole's study. At the same time, the disintegrative forces challenging the regime did not completely bypass the military sphere.

Cole investigates whether the army reinforced the monarchy through its patriotic symbolism as well as through its coercive power. He describes the Habsburg Empire as a military monarchy, which throughout the nineteenth century was involved in a greater number of armed conflicts than any other major European country (8). Yet the primary subject of the study is not the military itself, but rather the impact of military experiences on society at large (17).

Cole explores different aspects of this interaction of military and civilian culture. An important feature was the commemoration of military heroes through monuments, popular literature, and other expressions of public culture. The period witnessed the creation of Heroes' Square in Vienna, with its statues of and inscriptions to iconic figures such as Prince Eugène of Savoy, immortalized by his victories against Louis XIV and especially the Ottomans, and Archduke Charles, renowned for his successes, fleeting though they were, against Napoleon in 1809. Even greater was the symbolic significance of Field Marshal Joseph Radetzky, whose defeat of Italian revolutionaries in 1848/49 served as an example of loyalty to the monarchy in a period of crisis, but also as an increasingly rare expression of Habsburg military prowess. "In your camp is Austria," wrote Franz Grillparzer of Radetzky (87), and the elderly commander grew into a widely invoked paternal protector of empire and people, whose bicultural Bohemian origins further reinforced the universal nature of the monarchy in a period of growing national differences.

The civilian and military spheres touched even more intimately following the introduction of universal military service in 1868. The mobilization of resources for war was a major impetus of Habsburg state-building, Cole argues, but military service also furthered societal integration. Nowhere was this more visible than in the role of veterans' associations. Though founded for social and charitable purposes, these associations soon developed a reputation for imperial and dynastic patriotism. Yet the new national ideas could not be kept completely at bay. Among German Austrians, Habsburg patriotism was often tinged with German ethnic pride, tying devotion to dynasty and monarchy to its German origins and mission. The growth of separate Czech veterans' associations, on the other hand, confirmed the broader societal trend toward ethnonational differentiation. As long as these associations resembled their [End Page 153] German counterparts and combined Habsburg patriotism with a focus on distinctly ethnic interests, they were, nonetheless, seen as nationally unreliable by less equivocal associations such as the Sokol.

These dynamics are laid bare in Cole's examination of Italian veterans' associations in Trentino. These organizations were located at a particularly sensitive fault line between a newly founded external nation-state (the Kingdom of Italy) and the multinational empire their members had once served. In a region split between Italophile national-liberals and loyalist conservatives, the veterans represented the most Austrophile segment of the population and helped consolidate the conservative milieu. Close attachment to the Catholic Church, another pillar of the Habsburg state, reinforced this political stance. As a consequence, organized veterans frequently clashed with national-liberals and socialists over their Austro-patriotic tendencies.

In the city of Trieste and the adjacent Adriatic Littoral, Habsburg veterans inhabited a more diversified environment than in the more homogenous Trentino. Whereas Trieste was predominantly Italian-speaking, its multilingual hinterland supplied a steady stream of non-Italian immigrants and sojourners. The Littoral was ethnically mixed to begin with, with Italians prevailing in the urban centers, especially along the coast, and Slovenes or Croats dominating the countryside. In the important port city of Trieste, members of the small German and the more sizable Slovene minority controlled the leadership of the local veterans' association. The veterans added a popular component to a loyalist associational structure that was top-heavy with governmental elites. In adjacent Istrian associations, too, non-Italian members preponderated. This worried associational leaders, who feared that the supranational mission of the veterans' organization could be compromised (263). In Görz and Gradisca, by contrast, the veterans' association melted more easily into a broader Catholic-Conservative milieu.

Nationalist sentiments also inhibited designs to unite the individual veterans' associations within a larger Austrian umbrella organization. In spite of their continued avowal of dynastic loyalty, Czech and Slovene associations, especially, considered such constructions overly German-dominated. Since the idea of an official countrywide veterans' society also faced opposition from Social Democrats and local autonomists, it failed to pass parliament and had to be imposed by governmental decree at the outbreak of World War I. In practice, the new structure was never fully implemented, due to reluctance in many member associations and the increasing priority of more urgent matters of war.

Cole accordingly demonstrates the successes as well as the limits of militarization and patriotic mobilization. Veterans' organizations became rallying points for the public display of Habsburg patriotism. They were frequently affiliated with political Catholicism and in opposition to the liberal middle-class elites who promoted ethnic nationalism. They were therefore potent forces of political mobilization, but limited [End Page 154] to a distinct political milieu. Habsburg patriotism had become one identificational option of many.

The Last War of the Habsburg Monarchy

How did this diversity of self-identification impact the Habsburg Monarchy in its final and decisive last war of 1914–1918? Viennese historian Lothar Höbelt reiterates his colleagues' warnings against reading Habsburg history from the end. World War I ended with the disintegration of the monarchy, but the fatalistic imagery of a moribund empire destined for obliteration cannot do justice to the many twists and turns of this comprehensive military conflict. The Habsburg Monarchy showed surprising resilience, outlasting Tsarist Russia and coming close to seeing the collapse of Italy.

Höbelt also rejects the commonplace view of Austria as a mere wartime vassal of Germany without political agency of its own. Vienna was well aware of its crucial significance as Germany's foremost and irreplaceable ally and took financial and military advantage of this fact. Höbelt sees at least as much interest in closer political and especially economic integration in Vienna as in Berlin, as this project was to entail substantial financial transfers from the economically superior northern partner (69). Militarily, the increasing incorporation of Austrian units into larger, German-led structures enjoyed substantial support in Austrian circles, who saw imperial German troops as indispensable reinforcements of Austrian sectors of the front (105). At the same time, these visions of Mitteleuropa also faced skepticism in both countries and proved difficult to align with Austro-Polish aspirations for the addition of a Polish kingdom to the Dual Monarchy.

Nationalism put an end to the multinational empire, but only after World War I had brought it to its knees. In his discussion of the alleged patriotic unreliability of the Czechs, Höbelt brushes aside sentimental rationalizations and focuses on the pragmatic core. The main question for Czech political leaders was not so much whether they believed in the viability—and usefulness—of the Austrian Idea, but if they believed in the viability—and future existence—of the Habsburg state. Höbelt reminds us of the essential inertia of political life: the Habsburg Monarchy enjoyed respect and support, as long as it seemed an inescapable certainty. With similar pragmatism, individual nationalities, and the imperial government itself, tried to keep all their options open and be prepared for whatever outcome the war might bring. For the Czechs, this meant cultivating good relations with both St. Petersburg and the western capitals while retaining a working relationship with Vienna, allowing for an acceptable future irrespective of whether the conflict ended with Habsburg victory or defeat. For the Austro-Germans, the options in defeat were more limited and consisted primarily of the secret parachute of last resort, incorporation into Germany.

In the fall of 1918, the opportunists increasingly saw the monarchy as inopportune. The normative power of the factual, which for so long had favored the Habsburgs, [End Page 155] finally turned against them. The stronger battalions seemed to be on the side of the secessionists, who had established good contacts with the victorious western powers. Even if the latter had not yet fully made up their mind about the future of the Habsburgs, their émigré allies in diverse national committees and their freshly emboldened supporters in the homeland began to create facts on the ground. Accordingly, Höbelt does not ascribe the dissolution of the Dual Monarchy to the western powers: in his eyes, the peace treaties of Saint-Germain and Trianon only ratified the upheavals that had taken place in the fall of 1918. It would have been unrealistic to force the newly independent successor states back into a dissolved empire. In practice the Allies merely determined the details of disputed borders (239).

Höbelt concentrates on events and personalities rather than on theory, but his narrative is interwoven with interpretative implications. He does not ascribe the collapse of the monarchy to governmental neglect. The monarchy's failure to reform itself derived primarily from its parliamentary fragmentation, which prevented workable majorities. The oft-invoked solution of the national question was just as elusive, since it was all but impossible to satisfy all the nationalities at the same time. The Germans supported national autonomy for themselves in Bohemia and refused it to the Slovenes in Styria; the Czechs, in turn, supported self-determination for the Slovaks but strictly rejected any thought of granting it to German Bohemians. In the end, the monarchy fell apart because it was a multinational empire and lost a major war (269).

Another Austrian voice has expressed doubts about the continued viability of the Habsburg Monarchy: Manfried Rauchensteiner, doyen of Austrian military history, has recently updated, reformulated, and expanded his 1993 study Der Tod des Doppeladlers into a monumental new publication on World War I and the end of the Habsburg Monarchy.2 Over more than 1200 pages, the former director of the Austrian Museum of Military History uses his intimate familiarity with the relevant source material to explore not only the wartime experience of the monarchy, but also the reasons for its ultimate disintegration.

In spite of its primary focus on military events, Rauchensteiner's study contains a wealth of social and political observations and implications. Long before the outbreak of the war, there was talk about the imminent demise of the monarchy. An air of resignation permeated army and society. When the war finally broke out, parts of the political and military establishment saw it as a salvation. The political leadership, including the emperor, decided soon after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that military action against Serbia was indispensable. The sometimes exuberant mood of the early days of war was no different in Habsburg lands than in the other belligerent states.

The outcome of the emergent Armageddon was to decide the future of the monarchy. Already in 1914, Russian leaders were discussing the dismemberment of the Habsburg state, and exiles such as Tomáš Masaryk were actively promoting this [End Page 156] outcome to the western public. By contrast, the war aims of the Habsburg government remained vague. Vienna initially denied any ambitions for territorial enlargement in Serbia or Russia: its primary desire was to prevent both countries from interfering in the monarchy's internal affairs. Once battle was joined, that restraint faded. Austro-Polish schemes that aimed at combining Austrian und Russian Poland into the third pillar of an enlarged Habsburg Monarchy began to gain support.

The Austro-Hungarian military was hard pressed to live up to the country's claim to great-power status. Rauchensteiner highlights the weakness of Habsburg military mobilization. A polity rumored to depend on its army spent surprisingly little on it. Great Britain's per capita expenditure on its military was five times greater; that of France and Germany more than double. Even Russia and Italy spent more than Austria-Hungary (55).

The army also struggled to accommodate the country's cultural diversity. The officer corps was dominated by ethnic Germans. Whereas they only made up a quarter of the overall population and correspondingly also the lower ranks of the armed forces, Germans accounted for 76 percent of the active officers. Even among reserve officers, they still formed a narrow majority. Although this dominance derived to some extent from social factors such as education, it could not but influence the social composition of the army. Even by comparison with the otherwise so influential Hungarians, the army retained a strong German flavor, with active German officers outnumbering their Magyar counterparts by a factor of seven.

Everyday life in the military was much more polyglot. Besides German and French, cadets at the leading Austrian military colleges studied two additional languages of the monarchy. More than half of the officers were able to speak Czech and, apart from the approximately eighty standard commands in German, communication within the individual military units was dominated by a regimental language that reflected their ethnic composition.

Rauchensteiner also investigates the real or imagined repercussions of this diversity. Though he does not neglect the significance of bad leadership and of self-fulfilling suspicions, he discerns a connection between national identification and battlefield deportment. Whereas the majority of the draftees of all nationalities remained loyal to the monarchy, Rauchensteiner describes noticeable differences in key measures of military conduct such as desertion. Czechs and Serbs were considered less reliable. Croats, Slovenes, and Bosniaks proved relatively unproblematic, particularly for missions with which they could identify. Magyars and Germans served as the indispensable backbone of the army, however, and were regularly employed to consolidate potentially unreliable units.

Cultural and regional background also impacted the civilian wartime experience. Since the individual Habsburg nationalities tended to inhabit territories that bordered on culturally related enemy states, they were often subjected to mass evacuations. A [End Page 157] third of the Italians in the Trentino were deported to remove them from danger, but also to prevent cooperation with the enemy. Among the civilians leaving Galicia, about a third fled the approaching front. Another third was evacuated for its own safety. The final third was deported to remove civilians and potential spies from militarily sensitive areas (838).

In the end, the monarchy was torn apart by the conflicting interests of its German core and its multinational peripheries. An important element of this constellation was the relationship to Germany. A year into the war, the Habsburg Monarchy had already ceased to be a fully independent power and had become militarily, politically, and economically dependent on its stronger ally. Imperial German troops were required to stabilize the Austro-Hungarian lines. The creation of a Joint Supreme Command under German leadership formalized this inequality. The demonstrative public celebration of German-Austrian unity could not hide mutual rivalries and suspicions, especially among military and political elites. Rank-and-file Austrian officers, by contrast, tended to have more trust in Germany's military leadership than in their own (564).

This subordination to Germany also colored external perceptions of the monarchy. Western politicians increasingly promoted the dissolution of the Habsburg Monarchy as a way to reduce German dominance in Europe. The Allied response to the peace initiative of the Central Powers in early 1917 already listed the liberation of Italians, Slavs, Romanians, and even "Czecho-Slovaks" as an indispensable war aim (698). Yet the reopening of the imperial parliament in Vienna also revealed the growing distance among individual nationalities. The emotional detachment from the monarchy did not begin in the fall of 1918, but had already commenced more than a year earlier. Czech regiments on the eastern front began to encounter Russian units composed of former Czech and Slovak prisoners of war. Yugoslavism gained support among exiled South Slavs. In January 1918 Czech parliamentarians demanded greater respect for national self-determination in the peace negotiations with the emerging Soviet Union. Lev Trotsky's demands for a peace without annexations and Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points reverberated among war-weary soldiers and civilians. Mutinies could only be crushed by troops of dissimilar national background, so that Austro-German units suppressed Czech rebellions and Bosniaks overpowered Slovenians. Far from composing a unified whole, individual nationalities had begun to shoot at each other. Although the military leadership prevailed, the monarchy's future looked ominous.

In the fall of 1918 army and society were edging ever closer to a full collapse. More and more troops refused to fight for the empire and preferred to defend their immediate homelands. In the hinterland, national councils carved up the monarchy before it had been defeated. Rauchensteiner sees no grand finale, no dramatic catastrophe, just a continual slide toward disintegration.

Whereas Rauchensteiner's overall assessment of the late Habsburg era remains ambivalent, American military historian Geoffrey Wawro paints an unambiguously [End Page 158] gloomy picture. Wawro describes the Dual Monarchy as a polity in decline, desperately clinging to a great-power status that it no longer merited, and increasingly rejected by its constituent nationalities. Wawro's briskly argued study departs from the growing body of literature that emphasizes the monarchy's continued viability. Even though he focuses on the outbreak of World War I and the early phase of the conflict, the deficiencies that Wawro observes are, in his view, the result of a long-lasting malaise. The monarchy fell because it could no longer walk.

While there is widespread agreement that World War I caused the collapse of the Habsburg Empire, Wawro blames this outcome on the country's political and military leadership. In his eyes, Austria-Hungary recklessly provoked a war it could not win. This lack of judgment at the outset was subsequently magnified by a flawed conduct of the war. In Serbia Habsburg troops underestimated the resilience of their peasant opponents and what they could not gain in battle they tried to achieve by cruelty against civilians. Though the setbacks in the Balkans were embarrassing, the blunders in the East were devastating. In spite of having placed too few troops on the eastern front, the general staff under Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf decided to attack superior Russian units in Galicia rather than opting for a more promising strategy of defense. The ensuing mass casualties quickly turned the campaign into a war of attrition, which was decidedly not a promising approach for a military that was greatly outnumbered. After barely a month, the Habsburg army already seemed to have reached the breaking point. Its glaring shortcomings required German assistance and deterred potential allies from joining the Central Powers. Increasingly, the effective prosecution of the war was left to Berlin.

Wawro describes the Habsburg Monarchy as woefully unprepared for the war it had actively sought. Its insufficient conscription rates alone should have advised Vienna against battling a great power. The military offensives against Serbia and Russia in the fall of 1914 were characterized by a lack of resolve and a shortage of equipment and strategic planning. Through their inadequate pursuit of the war, Habsburg leaders also deprived their German ally of any chance to decide the conflict in its favor. Wawro also sees the multilingual realities of the Habsburg army much more critically than other observers. He diagnoses serious failures in communication: misunderstandings among soldiers of different national backgrounds may have provided for humorous scenes in peacetime but proved much less entertaining on the battlefield (34).

But for Wawro the military failures of the Habsburg Monarchy were merely the final step of a long period of decline. During the fateful war against Prussia in 1866, the monarchy had already demonstrated its fading international significance. Wawro mocks the monarchy's claim of satisfying the aspirations of its constituent ethnicities as successfully as any nation-state could (2). The romantic facade of a contented empire of united peoples dissolved under the stress of war (368). According to Wawro, no one believed in the multinational Austrian Idea anymore. [End Page 159]


The Habsburg Monarchy fell apart because it was a multinational empire and lost a major war. That is the succinctly expressed verdict of Lothar Höbelt, with which all the authors discussed above might agree. Beyond that, however, disagreements run deep. Was the dissolution of the monarchy just collateral damage from the war, bringing down a vibrant polylingual polity that pointed forward toward a consensual accommodation of cultural diversity? Or was it the predictable collapse of a moribund society that had lost both popular support and political purpose?

The works discussed here reveal a conspicuous fault line between those that focus distinctly on World War I and those that take the longer view. Where the latter tend to perceive resilience and viability, the former see a polity in deep crisis. Analyses of the longue durée of Habsburg state-building find ample evidence of determined and occasionally successful attempts at centralizing and modernizing the composite monarchy. Analyses of the empire's twilight years more regularly confront its comparative deficiencies in a great-power context.

A crucial aspect of this interpretational divergence concerns the monarchy's internal coherence in an era of national mobilization. Geoffrey Wawro revives the penetrating criticism of the Habsburg state as an entity that no longer enjoyed the assent of its people. Manfried Rauchensteiner describes the fragility of a great power that had become all but ungovernable and desperately tried to accommodate eleven different nationalities. Pieter Judson, by contrast, points to the cultural diversity of other European countries and emphasizes that the ethnolinguistic challenges faced by the Habsburg Monarchy were far from unique. Instead, he ascribes the gradual erosion of imperial coherence to the very administrative structures that had been designed to manage this cultural diversity. And Laurence Cole reminds us that the epoch was characterized not only by the popularization of national symbolisms and mythologies, but also by successful dynastic mythmaking.

The monarchy's viability depended also on its desirability. For the dynasty's most faithful defenders, the answer was found in an Austrian Idea. This conception defined the Habsburg Monarchy as indispensable for the preservation of peace in a part of Europe where Germanic, Latin, and Slavic populations interpenetrated. National ambitions on all sides had to take a back seat to this European necessity. This viewpoint has found significant posthumous support, but it was also a convenient justification of the status quo. Most importantly, however, it lost its resonance for the broader populace.

Almost all observers agree that, in the long run, the monarchy could have survived only through a major reorganization of its political structure that accommodated the demands of its national minorities. The challenges of such a reconstruction were confirmed after the collapse of the monarchy. The creation of mutually agreeable borders [End Page 160] between the new successor states proved all but impossible. Poles and Ukrainians, Serbs and Romanians, Slovenes and Italians might have shared a dislike of existing conditions, but they were deeply divided over proposed alternatives. Hungarian opposition to any constitutional elevation of other nationalities is well known. Lothar Höbelt reminds us that there were also limits to what the German core of the Austrian lands deemed acceptable. As a consequence, Justice Minister Count Johann Nepomuk Gleispach advised against radical reforms in national questions and warned that a German irredenta would form a greater danger to the empire than a Czech or Italian one.3 The dramatic occurrences surrounding Prime Minister Badeni's concessions to the Czechs in 1897 underscored this warning.

Proponents of Habsburg resiliency have insisted that it was World War I that caused the implosion of the Danube Monarchy. This argument is undoubtedly true, but it may also be a truism. Historically, it often takes a major crisis to trigger the downfall of long-entrenched polities. Even the Ottoman Empire, widely assumed to be the even sicker man on the Bosporus, did not collapse until its military defeat in World War I. Though its imminent demise had been prophesied long before that of its Habsburg counterpart, the Ottoman state surprised Allied leaders with its unexpected vigor in the early phase of the war. The empires of both the Habsburgs and Ottomans were not on the brink of collapse in 1914, but they could not survive a major military defeat. Perhaps the measure of a country's viability may be found precisely in its ability to endure and master fundamental crises.

Peter Thaler
University of Southern Denmark


1. Oscar Jászi, The Dissolution of the Habsburg Monarchy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1929).

2. Manfried Rauchensteiner, Der Tod des Doppeladlers: Österreich-Ungarn und der Erste Weltkrieg (Graz: Styria, 1993).

3. Michael Wladika, Hitlers Vätergeneration: Die Ursprünge des Nationalsozialismus in der k.u.k. Monarchie (Vienna: Böhlau, 2005), 311.

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