Further Observations on Austria Hungary in the First World War

The Alpine Front between Austria and Italy

The Alpine Front between Austria and Italy

Now that I’ve finished Musil’s Mann ohne Eigenschaften, I can plough ahead with Manfried Rauchensteiner’s magisterial history of Austria-Hungary in the First World War. I’ve got as far as the 12th Isonzo Offensive in October 1917 and find it astonishing that nobody in the Anglo-Saxon world has taken the Austrian perspective and turned it into a movie, play or novel. In fact, I’m coming to the view that the Austrian perspective is the key to of getting inside all of the otherwise inexplicable machinations of the First World War. Austria-Hungary was in every sense of the word, the underbelly of the war. In Western Europe and America, the story not only starts late in the day with Germany marching into Belgium, the Western Front became the war itself. Originally, it was meant to be a mere side-show: it was as if the big cats in one of the peripheral rings of a large circus unexpectedly ate the lion-tamer while everyone was supposed to be watching the high-wire act in the middle.

Franz Ferdinand talking with Oskar Potiorek during the Bosnian war games

Franz Ferdinand talking with Oskar Potiorek during the Bosnian war games

As I have written on several occasions, the country that started the catastrophe, Austria-Hungary, evaporates from Anglo-American view as soon the remains of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife are scraped out of their Gräf und Stift limousine. Even the reasons the Archduke chose to be in Sarajevo are never discussed beyond the provocative fact that he wanted to watch military manoeuvres in Bosnia on what was a nationalist holiday for the country’s minority Serbs. There is far more to it than that: Franz Ferdinand wanted to replace the military command of Conrad von Hötzendorf in order to put an end to his years of sabre-rattling directed at Serbia. Hötzendorf gallantly offered his resignation with the recommendation that Oskar Potiorek be assessed as a possible replacement. Potiorek was in charge of the war games in Bosnia. Why manoeuvres were being held over such a sensitive time for the disaffected Serbian minority is another question, but the rest, as they say, ‘is history’.

The bodies of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie Choptek

The bodies of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie Chotek

We forget too easily, or perhaps never knew, that countries did not declare war on blocs of alliances, but on individual countries, leaving each belligerent with a different set of enemies and fronts. In other words, the ‘Entente’ powers (Russia, France and Great Britain) did not simply declare war on the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey). America declared war on Germany, but not until later did it declare war on Austria; Italy declared war on Austria, but not until later on Germany and so on. In fact, the last two belligerents to declare war on one another were paradoxically, Russia and Austria-Hungary.

Propaganda postcard against the Entente

Propaganda postcard against the Entente

Fascinating dilemmas and conflicts arose with the death of the quasi-senile Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph and the coronation of his inexperienced 29-year-old nephew Karl in 1916. The Faustian pact between Austria-Hungary and Germany left Karl, who wished more than anything to be the ‘Emperor of peace’, with little room for manoeuver. Germany was being run as a military dictatorship and Karl’s desire to strike ‘a peace without annexations’ was not accepted by the German command of Generals Ludendorff and Hindenburg who, along with Wilhelm, saw Karl as a naïve youngster getting in the way of German ambitions.

Emperor Karl with wife Zita and son Otto

Emperor Karl with wife Zita and son Otto

What makes ‘German ambitions’ so central to the war itself, is that the conflict started without Germany harbouring the foggiest intention of expanding its own borders. Only later did they decide not to forfeit a single centimetre of conquered Belgium. Yet the only reason they were in Belgium at all, was because of the Franco-Russian Alliance. It was impossible to contain Russia without knocking out France first by attacking through Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg. This was called the ‘Schlieffen Plan’ and had been developed as a theoretical deployment concept by General Schlieffen in 1905. Its resurrection, modification and implementation by General Hlemuth von Moltke was meant to keep Germany from having to fight on two fronts.

Fighting in the Balkans

Fighting in the Balkans

The Austrians were at least attempting to keep to the original war-aim of ‘containing’ Serbia, something they could only do without having to fear the Russian-Serbian Alliance. Balkan wars in 1912 and 1913 already prior to the assassination in Sarajevo made the containment of Serbia a genuine military concern. Austria-Hungary’s hold on annexed Bosnia was controversial at best, and tenuous at worst. Hötzendorf called for the further annexation of Serbia and if necessary, in order to win allies in the region, its partition between Austria, Bulgaria and Romania. It was paradoxically Franz Ferdinand’s opposition to Hötzendorf’s plans that resulted in his being in Bosnia at all. After his assassination, there could be no further objections to ‘punishing’ Serbia, though even then, Franz Joseph would not agree to its annexation. The last thing the unstable multi-cultural Dual-Monarchy needed was yet another disaffected Slavic nation within its realm. Given the war crimes the troops of Austria-Hungary would commit in their eagerness to punish Serbia, further Slavic disaffection would have been destabilising.

The execution of Serbian women by Austro-Hungarian troops

The execution of Serbian women by Austro-Hungarian troops

Should the Austrians have waited until Germany had knocked out France so that it could deal with Serbia, safe in the knowledge that Russia could be kept in check? As it was, Germany was fundamentally interested in containing Russia for its own purposes and could hardly have cared less about the murder of Franz Ferdinand. General Moltke and Kaiser Wilhelm were frustrated at doddery Franz Joseph’s inability to come to any decision at all regarding Serbia. Apocryphal accounts tell of the morbidly Catholic Austrian emperor interpreting the assassination as God’s judgement on the morganatic marriage between the Archduke and the Countess Sophie Chotek. Ultimately, it was the tired, deluded Emperor Franz Joseph who ‘pushed the red-button’ of war. It must not be forgotten, however, that both he and Wilhelm were surrounded by war-mongering generals and there was no rational, opposing voice to appeal for diplomacy. The Nobel prize laureate and influential leader of Europe’s anti-war movement, Bertha von Suttner had succumbed to cancer only a week before Franz Ferdinand’s assassination.

Bertha von Suttner, 1843 - June 21, 1914

Bertha von Suttner, 1843 – June 21, 1914

Austria’s fronts were South East in an attempt to deal with Serbia, then due South from May 23, 1915, when Italy declared war on Austria but not Germany. By 1917, what victories Austria gained had only been possible with German support and came at the expense of the home front. The problem was boringly logistical: the further the Austrians advanced into Italian, Romanian or Slovenian territory, the less transport was available for getting food to its ‘Hinterland’ (interior) civilians. There was a limit to the suffering and deprivations civilians at home could bear. The Emperor Karl’s wife was Italian by birth and had one brother fighting for the Entente and another fighting for the Central Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey. Attempts via her brothers to establish a separate peace between Austria, France and Britain were thwarted by the Entente’s very sober assessment that it would be easier to defeat Germany with disgruntled and incompetent Austrian forces weighing them down. The more the Austrians hated their alliance with Germany, the better it was for the Entente. In addition, the Austrian territories of South Tyrol, Friuli, Trentino and Triest had been promised to Italy in the event of an Entente victory. The Italians were not prepared to make peace and forfeit these potential gains.

Austrian troops on the Isonzo Front

Austrian troops on the Isonzo Front

Austria-Hungary had to deal with Ruthenians, its Russian minority, having to fight Tsarist Russians; Austrian Serbs having to fight Serbian Serbs, Austrian Italians having to fight Italy’s Italians and Austrian Poles having to fight Russian Poles. The least willing of all of Austria’s constituent nationalities, the Czechs, were turning into an existential threat. Russian forces had entire regiments made up of Czechs who have deserted to the other side. The response from Karl, in the very teeth of his military command, was to recall Parliament, dissolved by Franz Joseph and to issue a general amnesty in the hope of enticing them back. In all of Karl’s attempts to make peace with the British and French – neither of whom had direct issues with the Austro-Hungarians beyond their alliance with Germany – he further promised his intention to federalise the Dual-Monarchy’s constituent states.

The Battle Field

The dead on the battle field

Every attempt at a decent and honourable peace was thwarted by the allies along with Karl’s own ministers. He replaced those who stood in his way, such as the Home- and Foreign Ministers along with Conrad von Hötzendorf as overall military commander. At the same time, Austria was fighting against a much diminished Russian army, the Romanians, and the Italians. They could only continue to fight against this array of enemies with German assistance, which ultimately meant having to support Germany with its ethically questionable U-boat campaign. Germany’s principal motive at this point was to free up much needed Austro-Hungarian men for its bid to conquer more West European territory. The numbers tell their own tragic tale. In 1914 Austria-Hungary was able to recruit 528,408 young men; in 1915 these numbers rose to 1,565,544; yet by 1918 they had fallen to 139,373. They had started to recruit men born at the turn of century while forfeiting the recruitment of men coming into their 50s, an age, above which, few survived even in peacetime. Given the fact that the Isonzo Front alone claimed the lives of 200,000 young German and Austro-Hungarian soldiers, out of their total of 1,200,000 fatalities, it was becoming clear that there simply were no longer the number of young lives available to continue throwing away in order to aid German expansionism.

Paul von Hindenburg (left) and Erich Ludendorff. Painting by Professor Hugo Vogel

Paul von Hindenburg (left) and Erich Ludendorff. Painting by Professor Hugo Vogel

I have not read Christopher Clarkes’ The Sleepwalkers, which is immensely popular with German readers, if only because he avoids taking the chest-thumping position so often found amongst Anglo-American historians. Clarke’s book no doubt offers an entire history of the war while Rauchensteiner makes no claims of giving us more than the war from the Austrian perspective. Reduce this story to its bare essentials and it comes down to Austria wishing to extract revenge on Serbia but reluctant to do so as long as Russia continued to offer Serbia protection. Germany issued Austria with a ‘blank cheque’ meaning they would stand behind Austria in order to counter potential Russian aggression. Germany felt it could only counter Russian aggression by knocking out its ally France first. General Moltke had in any case, been trying to convince Wilhelm to carry out a preventative war against Russia while it was still weakened from its 1905 defeat by the Japanese. Just as Franz Joseph was against von Hötzendorf’s ‘preventative war’ with Serbia, so Wilhelm was equally against Moltke’s against Russia. With the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and Austria’s retribution involving the possibility of a confrontation with Russia, both Moltke and Hötzendorf felt vindicated. They could finally have their wars. The difference, however, was that the Germans saw in Austria cannon fodder, while the Austrians saw in Germany support in its local campaign against Serbia. As incredible as it seems, containing Russia and Serbia were the only stated goals the Central Powers had when their long-desired war finally came to pass. Both Germany and Austria-Hungary were looking east, rather than west and neither, despite Hötzendorf’s wish to the contrary, held the slightest ambition of annexing new territory. By the time of Franz Joseph’s death in 1916, however, Hötzendorf was running Austria as a military dictatorship with Ludendorff and Hindenburg doing the same in Germany. For the generals, annexing new territory had become the principal purpose of the war.

Storming the Winter Palace during the Russian Revolution

Storming the Winter Palace during the Russian Revolution

When Russia bowed out due to revolution and civil war at home, it left Italy exposed. The ‘Schlieffen Plan’ had absolutely not gone as intended. Rather than knocking out France so that Germany could deal with Russia without worrying about attack from the West, Russia had left the conflict altogether and forfeited huge tracts of territory. Austria was happy to reacquire its lost eastern provinces and did not demand more. With Russia gone, it looked like it might be a simple matter to deal with Italy. Even if the French and British moved men to aid Italy against Germany and Austria, it meant the Entente taking men away from the Western Front. Austria, with its lands restored, was eager to end the war as soon as possible.

"It is forbidden to dance Swing"

“It is forbidden to dance Swing”

So why, one may be excused for asking, is this relevant to music banned by the III Reich? It’s relevant because Europe’s tribes were trying to organise themselves into the monolingual, mono-national constituent entities they ultimately became after the Second World War. To do this required creating national identities beyond the simply linguistic. Those who tried to pass themselves off as French or German but did not conform to pre-conceived national traits were excluded and with their exclusion, came the rejection of their cultural contributions. The Great War was more than anything, a tribal war. It was not dissimilar to what we are witnessing today in the Arab world. European boundaries were settled in a variety of ‘congresses’ in the 19th century by the same group of aristocratic supra-nationals, who drew lines across the deserts a century later during the twilight of Europe’s colonial empires. Little attention was paid to the fact that between all of these artificially drawn lines, different cultures, religions and even languages were thrown together. France was the model nation state, and since 1871, Germany. The empires of Austria-Hungary and Turkey, on the other hand, embodied the multi-national concept and were most at risk of falling victim to the mono-cultural nationalist spirit of the times.

Fascist laws in parts of former Austria prohibiting the speaking of any language other than Italian

Fascist laws in parts of former Austria prohibiting the speaking of any language other than Italian

The European 30-Year war of 1914-1945 ended with the continent in linguistically homogenised nation-states. A country with only a single language was never the default setting of Europe’s nations. After 1945, only Switzerland and Spain remained national entities with sizeable multi-cultural components and both countries had kept out of the conflict. Italy, on the other hand, was so determined to Italianise its war-booty of German speaking South Tyrol that they started even to Italianise German names on the gravestones of ancient cemeteries.

The Dead

The Dead

This reminds modern readers that tidy mono-cultural nation-states are not the default setting of human organisation. With the artificial creation of states consisting only of one language and one ‘culture’, it was inevitable that fanatics would continue to find new minorities that did not fit into their national image. As nearly everyone belongs to one minority or another, the attempts to arrive at ever-greater national ‘purity’ would be never-ending. The Shoah came to symbolise the insanity of such fanaticism and like America, Europe has over the past 70 years tried to come to terms with citizens who are fellow nationals yet in possession of a different skin colour and practice a different religion. That this experiment has not always been successful is the legacy of the insecurities and racial stereotyping that grew from European colonial history. Austria-Hungary provided the prototype of the multi-cultural state and its tragic decline was due to lazy racist nationalism. Minority Germans and Magyars could only lord over majority Slavs by perpetuating a myth of racial and cultural superiority. Yet in a perverse way, Austria-Hungary also provided a prototype for the European Union and offered not only a text book of how things could go wrong, but potentially, how they could be made to work.