Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Was Austria-Hungary Doomed?

It frequently happens in history that the odd remark, even addressing a situation truthfully, can be repeated so often over the years that it is blown out of all proportion to historic reality. To some extent this has been the case with the Dual-Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. Because it was not the most powerful nation in Europe and because her military was not the most efficient or cohesive, Austria-Hungary is often portrayed as a decaying, weak, decrepit power that was doomed to fall, war or no war. Yet, if one takes an objective look at Austro-Hungarian society, the economy and even the military and their war record, a rather different picture reveals itself. Austria-Hungary had its problems certainly and probably more than her share due to the rise of nationalist sentiment in the multi-national Hapsburg lands but had it not been for the war there is at least some evidence that Austria-Hungary could have survived and that the Hapsburg Empire was not, in fact, a doomed ghost of a bygone era.

First, one area in which Austria-Hungary was positively thriving was in the artistic and scientific segment of her society. This was the country of architects like Frederick Schmidt, Theophil Hansen and Karl Hasenauer. Inside their magnificent buildings one could find great composers of the period like Anton Bruckner, Gustav Mahler, Brahms, Hugo Wolf and Richard Strauss. For the less grand there was pieces known as light operas by Johann Strauss, Karl Millocker and Franz Lehar. There were poets like Hugo von Hofmannsthal, painters like Hans Makart, Gustav Klimt, Franz von Stuck and Kolo Moser. There were writers like Adalbert Stifter, Franz Kafka and Arthur Schnitzler. The medical department of the University of Vienna was renowned as probably the best in the world and produced such famous names in medicine as Theodor Billroth in antiseptic surgery, Theodor Meynert in brain surgery and Sigmund Freud in psychiatry. In other fields of study Vienna gave the world the philosopher Ernst Mach, the economist Carl Menger, the war historian Heinrich Friedjung, the legal experts Rudolf von Ihering and Joseph Unger, and the anthropologist Rudolf Poech. Does this sound like the product of a doomed and decaying society? For some, their theories are still hotly debated, for the artistic types their work is subject to individual taste, but no one can deny the wealth of talent represented in these products of late Imperial Austria. This certainly does not look like a society on the verge of collapse considering it had one of the greatest concentrations of artistic and scientific talent then in the world.

Secondly, there is the economic arena. While it is true that Austria-Hungary labored behind countries like Germany, France and Britain in the area of modernization and industrialization, significant economic progress was being made right up to the start of the First World War and the people of Austria-Hungary were nowhere close to being among the most impoverished or over-burdened in Europe to say nothing of the wider world. Industry was growing, railroad networks were expanding and between 1870 and 1913 per capita GNP in Austria-Hungary actually grew at a slightly higher rate than in Britain, France or Germany. The Austrian Empire was more developed than other areas but the Kingdom of Hungary, before World War I, was a major source of food exports to the rest of Europe and had a thriving agricultural industry. As the Twentieth Century dawned the Austro-Hungarian economy was growing by leaps and bounds. The rapid expansion of railways, particularly after the government sold much of these to private investors, greatly increased trade and economic opportunities across the empire. Still, as stated, Austria-Hungary was by no means the economic powerhouse of Europe but nor was it poor or backward and the economy was growing faster than in most other countries.

Finally we come to the way most powers at the time judged their national strength and that was, of course, the military. It is true that Austria-Hungary did not have the best military in the world or the best military in Europe. They were hampered by the basic fact that Austria had never been a militaristic country. If you wanted a country that lived by the sword you went to Prussia. Austria was always more famous for its music, art, grand buildings and glamorous society than it was for its military and battlefield successes. Additionally, the Austro-Hungarian military was hampered by the fact that most of the officers spoke German but relatively few of the soldiers understood the language. The dizzying array of languages and ethnic differences made the sort of rigid unit cohesion present in other armies virtually impossible in the Imperial-Royal military. However, all of that being said, the Austro-Hungarian armed forces were nothing to sneer at. They were a formidable fighting force, among the largest in the world with some excellent units and some brilliant commanders. They also had a record that included a number of often over-looked victories as well as their much talked about defeats.

The driving force behind the Imperial-Royal Army was Field Marshal Conrad von Hoetzendorf. He, like the empire he served, has suffered from a great deal of bad press in recent histories (regarding his ability and not his personality and opinions -in that regard he was certainly among the most vociferous and aggressive). Yet, it must be kept in mind that at the time of the outbreak of war the Field Marshal was widely respected, around the world, and considered by contemporaries to be the most brilliant strategic mind in Central Europe. He should also be given credit for his efforts to modernize the army and keep up to date with technological innovations which was always a struggle since Vienna was constantly cutting the military budget in preference for other things. The campaigns in the east that the Germans are given so much credit for winning were all based on the original strategies put down by Hoetzendorf. The disabilities of the army may have tainted the results but few would deny that grand strategy of Hoetzendorf was the work of a military genius and were ultimately successful. And, despite the disabilities of the army it was a formidable force and upon mobilization was able to field over three million well armed men with some of the biggest and best artillery in Europe, guns of such superior quality that they were imported by the Germans to level the Belgian fortresses that gave them so much trouble.

When it came to actually fighting there is no doubt that the initial campaign against Serbia was a disaster for Austria-Hungary and much is often made of this, however, it happened because of some crucial and unavoidable reasons. First, the Austrian-Hungarians had to weaken their forces for the drive on Serbia because of the need to concentrate the bulk of their forces to meet the Russian threat to the east. Second, the Serbs had the advantage of fighting a defensive war on their own ground -and that is a very rugged part of the world and perhaps most importantly the Serbs were simply extremely tenacious, tough and determined fighters, much more so than anyone at the time gave them credit for. However, working alone or in conjunction with the Germans, the Austro-Hungarian forces won numerous victories against the Russians, Romanians, finally did conquer the Serbs and when Italy joined the war the forces of Austria-Hungary performed magnificently. To the very end of the conflict they held off superior Italian forces, made daring counter-attacks and even forced the French and British to divert troops to help the Italians to keep them in the war. It is also true, though not widely known, that Austria-Hungary sent small forces to aid Germany on the western front and even to the Middle East to support the faltering Ottoman Turks toward the end of the war.

On the naval front, Austria-Hungary was far from helpless as well. Simply their presence prevented Allied forces operating with impunity due to their fear of an all-out battle with the formidable Austrian fleet. Large surface ships were mostly confined to the Adriatic because of this stand-off but the Imperial-Royal Navy did launch a number of damaging raids against the Allied blockading squadrons. Likewise, on the undersea front, for her small size the Austrian u-boat fleet proved extremely effective. In fact, the Austrian u-boats actually had a higher ratio of hits versus torpedoes fired than even the legendary German submarine force did. Another interesting fact is that the top scoring Austrian sub captain was none other than Georg Ritter von Trapp of “The Sound of Music” fame. Similarly, the Imperial and Royal Aviation Troops, despite working under severe hardships, proved themselves extremely capable with about 20 flying “aces” which included such pilots as Julius Arigi with 32 confirmed victories and Godwin Brumowski with 35 confirmed victories.

Considering all of this, it seems quite clear to me that, despite some considerable problems, Austria-Hungary was not an empire destined to collapse in any event. This is not something that should be seen as an inevitable event that would have happened with or without the war. Austria-Hungary had a vibrant social, scientific and artistic life, a growing economy and a respectable military. Of course no one can say for sure what would have happened but I think it is clear that it is at least very possible that without the war Austria-Hungary could have survived, it could have instituted the changes favored by many for “trialism” or a “United States of Greater Austria” and could have carried on very well. All the proper ingredients were there and in the person of either Archduke Franz Ferdinand or Emperor Charles I significant political changes would have been made. Austria-Hungary was not doomed, its collapse was not inevitable and people should not think that it was.

14 comments:

  1. great article.
    congratulations.

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  2. Your argument is sound and rings true. The Empire was intentionally destroyed with the help of a small cadre of 5th columnists within and especially by Woodrow Wilson who sought the demise of the Hapsburg throne.......to his regret. Churchill stated many years after, had a Hapsburg remained on the throne, the Hitlerite monster would not have crawled out of the sewer. Hindsight is always 20-20. Lesson to be learned - DO NOT TOUCH the Monarchies - they are the last balwark against the barbarians and Tolkien's "Orc."

    Love your website

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  3. Wilson's call for national self-determination did not help but he does not deserve to be singled out "especially" when the French and British governments had already planned and promised the carve-up of Austria-Hungary long before America ever entered the war. They had already promised parts of Austria-Hungary to Romania, Serbia and Italy in addition to making common cause with the nationalist enemies of the empire so even if Wilson had played no part at all in the peace talks there would have been nothing of Austria-Hungary left anyway.

    There were internal enemies to be sure but I think they could have been handled had it not been for the war which proved to be a disaster for everyone involved.

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  4. WIRTH so much conspiray to destory the Austrian-Hungerian Empire, and so much a push for Modernity as opposed to the Traiditionalism of the Hapsburgs, I can't help but be reminded of the passage from Galatians Chapter 6:7. Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.

    It seems to me the push for Modernity lead to its natural results, results we are still paying for, and which we are too blind to see was bad.

    Though I do disagree on one point: I thinkt he AustrioHungerian Empire woudl have collapsed anyway, if not due to the War, then by the mechanations of the Liberal trends in society. They woudl have targeted it and, liek Britain today, eroded it from the inside out.

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  5. Good post Mad Monarchist. Out of curiousity, have you read through The Decline and Fall of the Hapsburg Empire 1815-1918 by Alan Sked? I only read the part on the consitutional issues that developed the dual monarchy for an essay in modern history at Uni, but the thesis definitely interested me.

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  6. A good post, but I must respectfully disagree about the relatively high marks you give to Field Marshal Graf von Hötzendorf. The botch he made of Austro-Hungarian mobilization in 1914 should have itself been enough to secure his relief -- he had evidence for weeks that Russia was likely to intervene on behalf of Serbia, but he dithered about the disposition of the Austrian reserves -- chiefly 2nd Army -- first opting (crazily) to send it towards the Serbian border, then (mid mobilization) realizing he needed it in Galicia, where he had originally, and correctly, planned to have it in the first place. The resulting confusion snarled the railroads and prevented 2nd Army from timely appearing in either place.

    His plans in 1914 were generally deficient, primarily because they were too offensive. He underated the military effectiveness of the Serbs, as is well known; but his plans for Austro-Hungarian offensives in Galicia were too ambitious, he had too few troops for too large a front, and in any case was considerably outnumbered -- the Russians had almost 300,000 more troops than he did (still outnumbered him even with 2nd Army) and his deployment was too spread out for offensive operations -- his main attacking force, 1st Army, itself too isolated to do much good. As things fell out, the Field Marshal's conduct of the Galician campaign, and its sequel in Poland in 1915, was extremely rash, and resulted in terrible defeats from which the Imperial and Royal armies never recovered.

    In reality, the Austrians, inferior in both numbers and good artillery -- had no business whatever attacking either in Galicia or Serbia until the issue was clearer in France. That help was going to be forthcoming anyway: either the Germans would win quickly in the west and be freed to move troops easth; or else things would bog down, either in northern France or on the German fortress line in Lorraine; at which time the Prussians would ultimately come round to their logical next move -- which was to go after the weak sisters among the allies -- Russia and Serbia.

    Conrad's defenders say that an offensive in Galicia was needed to support the Germans, and there is something to that, but he knew very little about the German plans, and in any case, his own offensive conceptions were too grandiose in Galicia. That appears to have been Conrad's problem more generally: he had excellent paper plans for offensives -- if he had a German army, as well as German logistical underpinnings to support them -- and Austria-Hungary had neither. Of all people, Graf von Hötzendorf should have been aware of this: a great general is as aware of the weaknesses of the instrument in his hands as he is the strengths.

    The Austrians, in fact, had no business whatever going to war with Russia -- and that was the logical outcome of Conrad's wish-dream of destroying Serbia, which he had consistently urged since at least 1906. Austria-Hungary was certainly capable of doing that, but only if there was no Russian front (or the prospect of one, so that Austria could have the use of the troops that would otherwise be in Galicia). Unfortunately for Austria and for Europe, that condition simply never obtained.

    An examination of the Graf's behavior in the 1914 crisis leads one to think that he really didn't care what Russia did, so long as he got his cherished opportunity to smash the Serbs. He totally deprecated the chances of Russia coming in and even when it was apparent the Russians were going to make good on their promises to stand by Serbia, he consistently trespassed on Graf Berchtold's baliwick and pushed for war with Serbia, as if Russia were not there.

    The Field Marshal was certainly loyal, and had a good understanding of the threat that the fanatics running Serbia posed to the Empire, but his narrow focus on that problem, and his misuse of the Empire's rather threadbare military resources, when war finally came did much to ensure that Austria Hungary could not survive.

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  7. I don't see anything that really contradicts what I said; of course it was not my intention to write at length on the historiography of the military career of Conrad von Hötzendorf -I think you've done a good job of that right here. My only point was that he was probably the most highly esteemed strategic thinker in Central Europe in his lifetime. Which we was, so Austria was certainly not viewed as militarily weak or inconsequential, which was the only point I was trying to make.

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  8. If the Austrian monarchy had survived, indeed the German monarchies at that, would they have been able to avert the rise of National Socialism and Adolf Hitler?

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  9. Absolutely, both because the political parties in both countries were well established and not welcoming to new competition and because, frankly, someone of Hitler low social background could never have risen so high. Plus, even if he had, either Kaiser could have sacked him as soon as he stepped out of line.

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  10. It was an terrible thing to europe the fall of Austria-Hungary, Germany and the Tsarist Russia it meaned the end of hundreds of years of monarchy and conservatism and the rise of comunism and facism.

    I personaly hate wilson because the so-called principle of nationalities destroyed the old order and also Clemencau because he rejected the leter send by Charles the Blessed, also both mens are partialy guilty of the rise of Hitler and Mussolini.

    The europeans powers should make and military aliance instead of fight for Alsace-Lorraine and Constantinople the WWI couldn't happen.

    Hi from Argentina.

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  11. Meynert and Freud seem more into the Prussian line, than the Austrian, intellectually speaking.

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  12. When I wrote that I was sure someone would take issue with some of the "great minds" listed -but I didn't think it would take this long. So, finally I have the chance to say that their inclusion should not be taken as my opinion as to their worthiness (some had ideas I very strongly oppose). My only intention was to show people widely praised by the world at large to demonstrate that Austria-Hungary had a vibrant intellectual life and was not some stagnant, doomed power waiting to die.

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  13. The A-H Empire outperformed the French industry by 1910

    The empire's heavy industry has mostly focused on machine building, especially for the electric power industry, locomotive industry and automotive industry, while in light industry the precision mechanics industry was the most dominant. Throughout the years leading up to WWI the country has become the 4th biggest machine manufacturer of the world.

    Max-Stephan Schulze (1996). Engineering and Economic Growth: The Development of Austria-Hungary's Machine-Building Industry in the Late Nineteenth Century. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang. p. 295.

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  14. There is no doubt the Hapsburg dynasty had it's problems, and one was indeed organization within the military. I have read that by World War I, German and Magyar(Hungarian) were the official army languages and some units had to have orders in up to ten languages! Another fact, this one of Adolf Hitler, is that he could have been among the greats mentioned as part of the glory of Austria-Hungary. When rejected by the Vienna Art Academy, he was said to be not without talent and was recommended for architecture. He was unable to do so for lack of funds. Pieces of his paintings have survived and they are equals to the works of celebrated amateurs like Winston Churchill and Eisenhower. When it came to economics, the Empire was behind the West, but was developing well, like Imperial Germany, Austria-Hungary had expanded it's economy and industry rapidly, outdoing the first industrial nation Great Britain. Finally, the one mistake by the Hapsburg dynasty was to give an unrealistic ultimatum to Serbia following Franz Ferdinand's death. It was a Bosnian nationalist who did it, Serbian involvement is questionable, Germany only halfheartedly supported the Empire's claim, and the Russian Empire would of course move to support it's Slavic ally to put pressure on the Germanic Riechs to the West. Thus, the collapse was avoidable and was to be caused by short-term thinking nationalists, over-confident militarists, and jealous socialists/democrats.

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