Friday, April 3, 2015

Austria-Hungary: Collapse of an Instigator

Why bother learning about the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, concerning events of a century ago? An empire that collapsed at the conclusion of World War I in 1918. For me it’s like viewing an historical train wreck, the kind that you can’t look away from, a wreck involving a state. And to boot they set the spark that started the catastrophe that became World War I.  
Were they doomed to collapse? And what were they thinking invading Serbia in 1914? In one way of thinking Serbia was a terrorist sponsoring state; one that had to be dealt with. It was discovered that the group that assassinated Archduke Ferdinand had connections with Serbia military intelligence. This doesn’t negate the fact that Austria-Hungary was isolated and dependent on Germany’s support. In some circles, especially military, the attack on Serbia was required so the fragile Empire could extinguish Serbian nationalism.
The primary proponent of this wrongheaded thinking among the military was Franz Conrad von Hertzendorf, who is said to have proposed attacking Serbia some 25 times in the period leading up to WWI. Conrad, as often happens with military figures, saw only a military solution to Serbia’s perceived threat. Serbia had arisen from the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and was flexing its nationalist muscles on the border of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. 

 There were some 600,000 plus Serbian speaking people in the Empire.
Chief of Staff, Conrad Von Hertzendorf, all said, was a piece of work. He held to Social Darwinist thinking, which employed Darwinism and its idea of the survival of the fittest towards the social and political realm.  

He wrote,
“…the recognition of the struggle for existence as the basic principle of all events on this earth is the only real and rational basis for policy making”.

Thus, an attack on Serbia was imperative for Austria-Hungary to survive in the struggle of peoples and nations. In this type of thinking an aggressive foreign policy would bolster national unity. Weak peoples, folks and nations were meant to be subdued. These ideas were used to justify imperialism of the late 19th Century. Africans, South Asian Indians, Chinese and others were deemed inferior and it was considered expedient to dominate them. Later, others took similar concepts to the extreme and arrived at idea of the Master Race, the superior Aryan peoples of whom the Germans were numbered.

He advocated excessively aggressive battle field tactics, including frontal attack as the best method to continue to maintain all important fighting moral. He would argue in doing so even a smaller army could defeat a larger one, one fighting defensively, pointing to the Prussians victory over the French in 1870. In addition he downplayed the effectiveness of artillery preparation, the weapon that caused the most casualties in WWI. Employing these aggressive attack stratagems in the first month of WWI the Empire contributed to the loss of over 40% of its fighting capacity including some 250,000 killed. That is the number of soldiers United States lost in 3 ½ years of fighting in WWII. The veteran battalion and regimental officer core were decimated along with the fighting grunts. These types of veteran loses were irreplaceable. Without the assistance of Germany, the Empire’s army was not an offensive force for the remainder of the War.

Unrealistically assuming that the Russians wouldn’t be able to mobilize in time, Conrad wanted to quickly strike Serbia first and sent most of Austrian-Hungarian army south towards the Serbs. After the troops, five corps, were being transported south to fight the Serbs, Conrad changed his mind the next day and commanded they turn around. The logistics wouldn’t permit such an impossible turn around and they had to continue on towards Serbia. As a result they were neither useful for the fight against Serbia nor any assistance in the Russian front, arriving too late to be effective. No progress was made against the small Serbian army and after initial success in Galicia (currently Southern Poland) they were driven back with great loss against the Russians.

All the while he was carrying on an adulterous love affair with a married woman with 6 children, whom he met in 1903. He was obsessed with her. He wrote 3,000 letters to his love, one 60 pages long and sometimes 3 letters in one day. Each part of his day at the command center would be spent composing these letters. Yet, he only visited the front briefly three times. But of course, he sent hundreds of thousands to their deaths and yet more inflicted with war related injury and disability. In his thinking, great battlefield victories would grant him sufficient influence and gain esteem in the eyes of his beloved to free him to openly pursue his forbidden love. She was granted a divorce eventually in 1915 and they were married.

Being in a passionate love affair with a married woman is not criminal, but sending people to their deaths, all the while, into a giant meat grinder that was WWI, was nothing less than monstrous. Of course the biggest diplomatic fustercluck: the Hapsburgs unintentionally but carelessly started World War I.  84 year old Emperor Franz Joseph ruling since 1848, acquiesced to the military thinkers and agreed to attack its smaller neighbor Serbia in July 1914 to punish them for the assassination of the Prince Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austrian-Hungarian Empire. 

The critical idea here is that the Empire pursued an independent policy of aggression toward Serbia in July 1914 with the imprimatur of Germany, absent of any diplomatic efforts to diffuse the situation. They were the spark that ignited the conflict and no one else.

Austria-Hungary’s foreign policy over the last half of the 19th Century was largely inept. They alienated a potential ally in monarchist Russia, who came to their aid suppressing the Hungarian revolt of 1848, thus preserving the Empire.  The Austrian-Hungarian Empire, a bulwark against the Ottoman Turkish Empire in the 16th and 17th Centuries, was a balancing act of an empire by the later decades of the 19th Century. In fact, it was so precariously unstable it refrained from pushing the tottering Ottoman Empire into disintegration for fear it would redound to them. Thus they abstained to lend support of any kind to the Russians in the Crimean War;  later when Russia had decisively defeated the Turks in 1878, Austria-Hungary had received authority over Bosnia-Herzegovinian which they later annexed in 1908. That war saw the nation states of Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia freed from the yoke of the decaying Ottoman Empire. On the other hand Russia received very little from its victories, being on the doorstep of Constantinople, when hostilities ceased. They were forced to give up almost all of their gains.  Note British Empire, a nonparticipant, gained the Mediterranean island of Cyrus in the peace negotiations, also part of the Ottoman Empire. Yes, the sun continued to never set on jolly old British Empire.
The Empire was a tottering, decrepit throwback: an anachronism in the age of nationalism exemplified by countries like Germany, Italy and France, states representing national peoples. The Austrian-Hungarian Empire dis-integrated at the conclusion of World War I under the pressure of a dozen ethnic minorities: German, Hungarian, Czech, Slav, Slovene, Croat, Rumanian, Ukrainian, Pole, Italians, Ukrainian, Jews…and a couple you’ve never heard of. It was about the size of Texas with nearly 53 million people in 1914. The central cohesive political idea was loyalty to a divinely anointed Emperor.  Franz Joseph had been Emperor since 1848, attaining the throne after the first nationalist revolts swept over Europe.

The nationalistic fervor unleashed by the French Revolution terrified the monarchies; thousands of the nobility fell under the guillotine and were killed in peasant revolts. A re-instatement of the status pre-revolution was attempted in 1815, after the defeat of Napoleon. The lid blew off this effort in 1848 when Poland, Hungary, France among others overturned their governments and cried out for freedom and justice under the swell of nationalistic feeling. The demands were largely the Liberal type of the period:  freedom from the demands and constraints of feudal obligations, renunciation of the Kings right to claim sovereignty by divine right and autonomy and independence for the national peoples and such.

19th Century Liberalism was much different than what the term entails today. The basic tenants consisted of a government with the consent of an electorate, but propertied only, elimination of support for state sponsored Church, freedom of the press and free exercise of capitalism. And it was absent the socialistic style income transfer welfare benefits, so characteristic today. There were a few Socialistic elements in some revolts but the idea of a central state dispensing welfare benefits and regulating society was far in the future.  Working conditions at the time were brutal, for factory workers, 12-15 hours a day 6 or maybe 7 days a week in sweat shop conditions. The peasant was usually monarchist in leanings, seeing little chance of change in their circumstances with so-called liberal or republican governments. Even a republican would fear universal suffrage.

For a monarchy like Austria or Germany there was a grudging acceptance of some type of popular representative Assembly or Parliament, usually weak or anemic and elected on a narrow electorate of propertied voters. This placed the Monarchy under the aspect of a restraint of rule of law but the Monarch would reserve the absolute divine right but deign to hear the people expressed in these representative assemblies. Ultimately, for the Hapsburgs the Emperor ruled supreme but with limits. In effect the God given right of the monarch to rule would be circumscribed in a ruling coalition with this Assembly. Oddly, nearby up until 1797 Venice had a representative republican government for something like a thousand years, a tiny drop of representative government in all of Europe, nonetheless ruled by the mercantile elite.

Franz Joseph at 18 years old became Emperor of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in 1848 by the abdication of his father of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. 1848 saw a revolt of peoples energized by nationalism. In 1848 the Hapsburg family was driven out Vienna, but shortly thereafter realized they still had the support of the military who swept back into Vienna. The revolt was bloodily suppressed. But it was the Russian Emperor, Czar Nicholas I, who saved the Hapsburgs by violently suppressing the Hungarian revolt. Russia would not be repaid.

Later the Hapsburgs were out maneuvered by Prussia’s Bismarck, the Foreign Minister and Chancellor. Bismarck insured the neutrality of France, sympathetic to nationalistic yearnings in large part, thus Austria-Hungary was isolated, having failed to assist Russia in the Crimean War; they lost the support of Russia. France supported limited nationalistic aspirations in Northern Italy, Lombardy and Veneto, which since 1815 had been given to Austria-Hungary. In concert with Italian states fighting in Northern Italy, Prussia soundly defeated Austria in 1866 at Koniggratz (Sadowa) in a battle to determine who would be dominate in the union of German states. Prussia it was decided would lead a confederation of German states and Austria would be excluded from the union. Bismarck, Chancellor of Prussia, completely out maneuvered them. A Prussian led united Germany without Austria, the heavy weight in Central Europe over the course for some four Centuries, was demoted to spectator and then client state of the German Empire.

Besides loss of Northern Italy in its war in 1866, the defeat led to the arrangement of a dual monarchy of Austria and Hungary. The two states would be ruled separately under the under the sole sovereignty of Emperor Franz Joseph. Hungary would be independent except for military and foreign relations. This arrangement always restrained appropriations to the military: a military that could be used to suppress the Hungarians, making the risky invasion of Serbia all the more foolhardy. Austro-Hungarian military was a fraction of the major powers. The Empires subjects spent as much on tobacco and more on beer and wine than defense. It trained a quarter of its military age male and in contrast France 80%. It was ill prepared for the military adventure its leadership show eagerly thirsted.
The original question was whether Austria Hungary was doomed to collapse. The collapse was a likely based on  the anachronism that was the monarchial dual sovereignty of Austria-Hungary, combined with a disconnected, aged monarch and the fact the country was composed of a host of separate, diverse nationalities. But they couldn’t have played it dumber. Let’s attack Serbia to teach it a lesson not to spread nationalism, rather than initiating any internal reforms. With a relatively small and decidedly unprepared army it was an act of complete foolishness, idiocy and stupidity. It destroyed a country and led to even more instability and war just a generation later.
The rot did appear at the top. Indicative of the Emperor’s ossified behavior that led to the downfall of the Empire, was his attitude to his nephew’s marriage. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne, fell in love with a Czech noble women, a lady-in-waiting to the Archduchess Isabella of Teschen. Sophie Chotek, duchess of Hohenberg, had a well-bred background, but was deemed below his elevated station. Permission was grudgingly granted to allow a morganatic marriage by the Emperor on the provision that his wife would not share Franz Ferdinand’s status and the children would not be able to inherit the throne.  She was humiliatingly shunned at the court. The Emperor only met her by accident several years after they were married and was virtually ignored by Franz Joseph and the court followers.

 Archduke Franz Ferdinand due to his somewhat irascible personality and the morganatic marriage, so frowned up by the Emperor, was not in complete confidence of the Emperor. And it appears that he harbored ill will towards the Archduke. For one the security surrounding the Archduke was very light in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, a patriotic holiday that commemorates the long remembered defeat of the Serbs by the Turks in 1389: the defeat that subjugated the Serbs for half of a millennium. Only 60 police were on duty in Sarajevo, a city of 80,000 that Sunday morning. In fact the Austrians were given a hint that mischief was in the air by the Serbian ambassador to Austria, resident in Vienna, who had knowledge of possibility of an assassination plot but wasn’t at liberty to reveal the details. Warnings by the Foreign office, the Ministry of the Interior and Austrian military intelligence reported threats about the visit. The Archduke was very nervous and concerned about the visit but the visit was insisted upon by the Emperor. As a result of their visit to Sarajevo, the Archduke and his wife were both assassinated with only two shots that day.
Another indication that the Archduke was held in low esteem was the absence of an appropriate funeral. No foreign dignitaries were allowed to attend, only the royal family. Initially the three surviving children were even asked to pay for the funeral, although this was rescinded. The Emperor was said to have expressed relief that the troublesome Archduke was finally out of the way and showed little distress that he’d lost his heir. The Archduke might have been the only brake to war with Serbia.

It’s interesting to know that the Emperor Franz Joseph’s wife and son were in some profound way alienated from him, not to say they were completely absence his presence. His wife, Elizabeth, avoiding dreary court decorum, traveled extensively absent the Emperor, preferring to be away for long periods of time on tour. She was tragically stabbed to death by an anarchist in 1898. Their son Rudolf, the heir to the throne, preceded her in death in 1889 in a murder-suicide. He is said to have shot his 17 year old mistress and some hours later committed suicide at his hunting lodge Mayerling. Tragic death seems to have haunted the Emperor; ones that might have initiated reform in the Empire. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was desirous of reducing the hegemony of the Hungarians over the lesser ethnic groups in their half of the empire. Hungarians ruled unopposed over the Serbs, Croatians, Romanians, and Slovenians among others. This would have re-balanced the Empire in a tri-partite union, instead of the current one in which Hungary wouldn’t have virtual veto over reforms that might begin to incorporate the lesser minorities into the Empire.  

 Archduke Franz Ferdinand was much opposed to aggressive military action towards Serbia, but with his demise the military heads gained transcendence and persuaded the Emperor Franz Joseph to allow a military operation to take place against Serbia. They didn’t give much thought it seems to Russia who might come to Serbia’s support.

This dilapidated, outmoded, archaic Empire contained a Vienna that was a cosmopolitan vibrant city, a source of great cultural production. Adolf Hitler, Stalin, Freud and Trotsky who lived within a few miles of each other there in 1913 sought it out. One of 20th Century’s most famous philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein, the author of logical positivism had lived there until 1911. Composers Gustav Mahler, Brahms, Richard Strauss (Theme used for 2001 a Space Odyssey) among others lived there. Gustav Klimt lived there as well. How could such a vibrate civilization co-exist with a tottering Empire? It almost makes one think the civilization was worth saving.
One last thought regarding the collapse, four empires fell along with Austria-Hungary; that is Germany, Russia and the Ottomans. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that monarchy and modernized military and mass mobilization were incompatible with societies based on some idea of ordered hierarchies. These societies claimed a right to existence of a ruling class and divine ruler in which a society owed respect and fidelity based on religious principles of the rightly ordered society. For example it would be unthinkable that the officer staff be served the same food as the regular soldier as did other militaries.  The Americans, the French and increasingly the British rejected this scheme. The empires couldn’t have been more foolish in pursuing state interests through modern military means. They were blind to their own demise, especially the Dual Monarchy of Austria and Hungary.

A J P Taylor's Struggle for the Mastery of Europe explains that the Austrian-Hungarian Empire feared Serbia as a unifying agent in the Balkans. They had seen Emile Cavour, Prime Minister, leading Piedmont and the Kingdom of Savoy in Northern Italy to initiate unifying Italy in 1860. The unification culminated in depriving Austria-Hungary of the Northern Italian provinces of Lombardy and Veneto, granted to them in the Congress of Vienna in 1815. They may have feared a repeat in 1914, but were frightfully ill prepared for the total war fought in WWI. The ossified leadership of the Empire couldn't comprehend internal reform.