Friday, November 4, 2016

Prelude to the Great War: Austria-Hungary

At a Bosnian railway station in 1910 a would-be assassin armed with a revolver was close enough to touch the emperor; but in a tragedy for humanity, he lost his nerve in the royal presence.  Francis Joseph seemed to court death by walking alone through the streets of Bad Ischl, the resort town outside his summer villa – but death would not come.  “All are dying, only I cannot die,” he complained in his early eighties.  While he lived to die, millions died because he lived.

So writes Jack Beatty regarding the emperor of Austria and king of Hungary, “…the man who started World War I…”

All know of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand as the precipitating event for the Great War.  As an aside, and less known certainly to me: this assassination brought relief to his uncle Francis Joseph, as the Archduke married beneath his station, and Francis Joseph was concerned about the bloodline that would follow.

By European standards, Austria-Hungary was not a militaristic empire.  Austria-Hungary spent three times as much on beer, wine and tobacco as it did on defense.  The Hapsburgs conquered by marriage, not war.  So what changed in 1914?  What was it about this assassination that moved the empire to instigate a European-wide war?

Since losing midcentury wars to France and Prussia, Austria-Hungary had been living on bankrupt repute.  In the days after the assassination in Sarajevo of Franz Ferdinand by a Bosnian Serb student with ties to Belgrade, its leaders feared that, if upstart Serbia got away with conspiring to murder its next ruler, not just big powers like Russia but small ones like Italy and pups like Montenegro would pick the empire apart.  A show of power was imperative to maintain the shield of prestige.

The Serbian government’s failure to investigate any Serbian links to the murder and the glee of the press in Belgrade regarding the assassination contributed to the anger and incentive for war.  In fact, Austria’s demand that it be allowed to conduct an investigation was the one important item from the list of Austrian demands rejected by the Serbians.  This rejection triggered Austria’s declaration of war.

This “shield of prestige” was rather personal for the emperor.  In the war manifesto of July 29, 1914, he used the word “I” twenty-six times, and numerous phrases that began with the word “my.”  After the assassination, Austria-Hungary took comfort in the ability of Germany to stave off and defeat the Russians, adding confidence to the emperor in his declaration.

If war led to the end of the monarchy, at least it would perish “decorously.”  Demonstrating the complexities of this particular empire, the mobilization orders issued in July were printed in fifteen different languages.

It did not help that Francis Joseph was kept somewhat isolated from the details of empire, and especially regarding events leading up to war.  In 1912, Serbia’s prime minister asked for direct talks in Vienna; no one told the emperor, and the Serbian’s overture was rebuffed.  Just before declaring war in July 1914, he was falsely told that Serbia had invaded Bosnia and Hungary.

Beatty considers the counterfactual: if the archduke was not assassinated, would Europe have gone to war?  There are many historians who believe the weight of other circumstances throughout Europe would have led to such a war in any case.

Beatty is not fully convinced.  The archduke regularly was the strongest voice for relatively peaceful resolutions to the multiple conflicts internal to the empire.  He considered that any war with Serbia would mean war with Russia, and in this both empires were likely to fall.

In any case, war came: the suicide of the west.


…with subjects from eleven nationalities and multiple religions, [Francis Joseph] stood for a principle a century ahead of its time – the “Austrian idea.”  Children were taught that Austria-Hungary was a state of “higher order – one that had or could overcome the tribal instincts of nationalism and serve as a model for the transnational European future.”

“Overcome the tribal instincts of nationalism” – nationalism being the most decentralized form of political organization ever devised.  After dozens of centuries of this form of political organization, it was not likely to be peacefully abandoned in Austria-Hungary.  To overcome countless centuries of nationalism requires a complete change of human nature – a new man. 

That utopian “Austrian idea” ended with the war that sounded the death throws for Europe and western civilization. 

There is a tyranny in the womb of every Utopia.
-        Bertrand De Jouvenel

That utopian “Austrian idea” did not end well for Europe one-hundred years ago, and that utopian “Austrian idea” (aka “the European Union” combined with an open-border refugee policy) will not end well for Europe in this century either.


  1. "War is the health of the State"- Randolph Bourne.

    "Taking the State wherever found, striking into its history at any point, one sees no way to differentiate the activities of its founders, administrators and beneficiaries from those of a professional-criminal class."

    Albert J. Nock "Our Enemy,The State".

    Regards, onebornfreeatyahoo

  2. Franz Josef was in his 80s when WW! broke out and probably not at the top of his game. Other folks underneath him were calling the shots first and he decided not to overrule them. A completely avoidable tragedy if a clear headed ruler had been in charge.