Friday, August 24, 2012

Soldier of Monarchy: Field Marshal Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf

The military forces of Austria-Hungary are often dismissed as a whole. This is unfair as they actually performed quite heroically given the myriad disadvantages they faced but it has also been extended to include the high command. While many will hesitate to criticize the common soldiers of any power, few will ever hesitate to criticize the generals and overall the generals of the First World War are often portrayed in a negative light, often unfairly so. One man whose reputation has seen extreme highs and lows in terms of how history has judged him is Count Conrad von Hötzendorf, for much of the war, the top commander of the armies of Austria-Hungary. He was born in the outskirts of Vienna, Austria on November 11, 1852 into a military family (his father was a colonel in the hussars) and entered military training at an early age, being commissioned a lieutenant at 19. He underwent further training, served with the General Staff Corps and saw his first active service in the occupation of Bosnia and the suppression of a rebellion in Dalmatia. By 1888 he was teaching tactics at the war academy in Vienna and later commanded a regiment, then a brigade, then a division. In 1906 he was appointed chief of staff of the Imperial-Royal army and was a highly regarded officer.

In this position, Hötzendorf was known for his extremely aggressive approach. Preemptive warfare seemed to be his “default” position. Only a year after his appointment he proposed a preemptive war against the Kingdom of Italy. Later though it would be the Kingdom of Serbia that became his primary target. He viewed it as inevitable that Austria-Hungary and Serbia would come to blows and, to his mind, the sooner this was done with the better. He saw this as part of a great contest of survival between the German and Slavic peoples and he was definitely a German-centered member of the “Greater Austria” school of thought. Hötzendorf distrusted the Hungarians and the power they wielded within the empire, viewing them as simply a source of division and potential rebellion. His arguments for a greater centralization of power in Austrian hands and new military deployments were invariably frustrated by Emperor Francis Joseph who opposed any sort of changes. The Emperor had seen what rash military behavior had reaped in the past and took a “wait and see” attitude about most things. Archduke Francis Ferdinand provided a more willing ear but this too tended to be frowned upon by the Emperor.

Conrad von Hötzendorf formally proposed a preemptive attack on Serbia no less than twenty-five times prior to the First World War. This aggressive stance impressed the high command in Germany and there is no denying that he gained an impeccable reputation amongst military circles prior to the war. “The most brilliant strategist in Central Europe” he was called. Others declared him to be the most gifted general the Hapsburg empire had known since the great Prince Eugene of Savoy. Even after the many disastrous defeats Austria-Hungary suffered in the early days of the war many in the German high command (a notoriously tough crowd) lamented that the Austrian chief of staff ‘deserved a better army’. Undoubtedly his pristine reputation suffered after the onset of hostilities in 1914. Von Hötzendorf was known for his aggressive strategies, which has led him to be hailed as “bold” by some and “reckless” by others. The initial Austro-Hungarian advance into Serbia turned into a bloody mess and the initial clashes against Russia were little better. However, given the long-held assurance that Austria-Hungary could crush Serbia easily meant that the defeat there stung the most.

In defense of the chief-of-staff, the intervention of Russia had forced him to drastically reduce the strength of the army sent into Serbia considering that Russia was by far the more dangerous opponent. However, the entry of Russia was not unexpected and should have been better taken into account. In fact, so confident were the military authorities in Vienna in the first days of the war, it was assumed that Austria-Hungary, rather than Germany, would play the major part in the war on the eastern front with the German forces only along in a supporting role. That was certainly not the case as Austro-Hungarian casualties were so devastating in the first years of the war that Germany came to dominate the eastern front and had to supply reinforcements in Serbia and eventually against Italy as well. As the man in charge of the planning of these operations, Conrad von Hötzendorf must accept most of the responsibility for these considerable setbacks.

It is also true though that von Hötzendorf had long advocated much-needed improvements to the military but was thwarted by an overall aversion to change of any kind and a refusal by the parliament to spend the money required. It is also true that much of the German operations on the eastern front were adapted from the original plans von Hötzendorf had drawn up and these were extremely successful. Given that, it would be hard to argue that, as a strategist, his was not a brilliant military mind. Yet, it is also true that he never managed to effectively put these brilliant plans into effect. At the start of the war with Serbia, for instance, after having advocated for a quick and crushing invasion again and again for many years, when the opportunity finally came, he repeatedly delayed. Further, if the Imperial-Royal forces lacked the cohesion to carry out his grand, large-scale strategies, this is something an effective planner should have taken into account. Nonetheless, the worst criticism of von Hötzendorf often goes too far. His was a gifted military mind, at least when it came to the conception phase of warfare, and under his leadership the Austro-Hungarian forces were at least holding their own against Russia, Serbia and Italy, with German support to be sure, but against more enemies on more fronts than most other commanders had to deal with.

The effective end of his career came with the accession of Emperor Charles I (Kaiser Karl) to the throne of the Dual Monarchy. Charles had long been opposed to Conrad von Hötzendorf and his strident, aggressive ideas. To keep up appearances he was promoted to Field Marshal but soon after was replaced and sidelined. He accepted a minor command on the Italian front but when the offensive there ended in failure, he was finally dismissed. Like other old soldiers, Conrad von Hötzendorf faded away, but he did not go gracefully. He seemed rather indifferent to the collapse of Austria-Hungary, taking the attitude that if only he had been listened to and his military improvements adopted it would never have happened. He was, naturally, less than devoted to Emperor Charles who sacked him and when it came to his own record on managing the war he attempted to shift most of the blame to the Hapsburg Archduke Friedrich of Austria, nominally supreme commander of the army from 1914-1917. Most recognize this as being quite unfair given that the Archduke was quite an elderly man and von Hötzendorf had always enjoyed almost complete freedom in his duties as chief of staff. It was simply an unworthy effort to shirk responsibility for the many setbacks he had presided over.

After the war, the former field marshal did little to redeem himself. His explanations of the war mostly focused on how disasters were the fault of others rather than himself and having formerly been a proponent of the “Greater Austria” he became an ardent supporter of a “Greater Germany” which would unite German-Austria with Germany itself. He died in Germany but was buried in Vienna, his funeral attracting quite a crowd. In the aftermath of World War II, the Republic of Austria tried to develop its own sort of national, patriotic pride and seized on Graf von Hötzendorf as a hero, a gifted military leader, who might have accomplished great things if only others had listened to him. He fit into this role quite well as he had been an ardent Austrian nationalist and had ended on less than friendly terms with the House of Hapsburg, making him acceptable to the republicans. His later attachment to union with Germany was brushed under the rug. Later, however, when any sort of national pride came to be seen as a bad thing, and the old Austria-Hungary as absolutely deplorable along with anyone associated with it, the reputation of Conrad von Hötzendorf underwent a dramatic change. The brilliant, strategic genius of yesterday was the bumbling incompetent of today.

The truth, of course, is not so simplistic. In the basic sense, Conrad von Hötzendorf was a genius when it came to broad military strategy but it is also true that he was anything but that when it came to putting his plans into effect. He often ignored vital factors such as available resources, the weather and the terrain and his grand offensives were almost always out of all proportion to what his forces were capable of achieving. Such flaws might have been forgiven had he possessed a more humble nature but his egocentric attitude and petulant criticism of the monarchy he served for so long leaves the impartial observer with a negative overall view of the man.


No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...