The Strength of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in 1914 (Part 1)

by John Garland

new perspective. Volume 3. Number 1. September 1997

Summary: In the first of two articles in which the strength of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1914 is assessed, John Garland focuses on the problems and weaknesses of the Empire: the Ausgleich is seen as disadvantageous, the nationalities problem in Austria and Hungary are described and the foreign policy outlined.

IN THE EARLY WEEKS OF 1909, barely three months after Emperor Franz Joseph had announced the Habsburg annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Henry W. Nevinson sat down to write an article. He had been invited to contribute a chapter entitled ‘Austria-Hungary in our own time’ to one of the multi-volume histories of the world which rolled off the presses in such numbers in the wake of the 1902 Education Act. Here is part of what he wrote:

From its history one can see that the monarchy of Austria-Hungary is not so much a result as a residue. It embodies no conscious purpose or intention … it remains rather as a shapeless and almost accidental collection of pieces than an organic and vital whole. It is still encumbered by the tradition of former greatness in the days when it stood before Europe as the Holy Roman Empire, whose monarch was equally the successor of the Caesars and the representative of God’s temporal power here on earth. It would be hard for any empire to live up to such a part as that. … M. Milovanovitch, the Servian Foreign Minister … said in January 1909: ‘Austria-Hungary is not a Fatherland but rather a prison of numerous nationalities all panting to escape’. The description is singularly apt. … It is natural to suppose that with the departure of the man [Franz Joseph] who has so long held the component parts together, however loosely, a general disruption will ensue and the whole fabric of the empire collapse.

That seems plain enough. Here is a disinterested British writer looking with a clear, if rather jaundiced eye, at the Habsburg Monarchy in the first decade of the twentieth century and, seemingly, writing - in rather ponderous Edwardian prose - its imminent obituary notice. But that would be a premature judgement of Nevinson’s position. His chapter ends thus:

But it would be unwise to prophesy any such fate. Austria-Hungary has survived so long that in all likelihood it will go on surviving, if only by habit. … Patriotic as Czechs and Magyars and Serbs and Germans may be, when it came to the point they might very well prefer to hang together rather than enjoy a short-lived separation at the cost of ultimate and perpetual absorption under the grinding imperialism of one or other of their powerful neighbours.

The ultimate verdict ‘… in all likelihood it will go on surviving, if only by habit’ was made by an informed contemporary observer. Austria-Hungary appeared to be a complete anachronism: it was a dynastic empire living in a world of nation states; it had suffered defeat after defeat, reverse after reverse, over the previous century; it had no vision, nothing to offer except more of the same; it was generally recognised as the weakest of the European great powers, in fact hardly a great power at all. And yet, some experts evidently thought that even in the twentieth century world it would probably survive. But it didn’t. Less than a decade after Nevinson’s words were written the Habsburg Monarchy had been consigned to history. Ever since, historians have been arguing about the reasons why.

The Monarchy was Doomed

For many there’s no great mystery about it. Austria-Hungary collapsed because it was living on borrowed time, decades if not centuries out of date by the early twentieth century. Sir Lewis Namier, brought up a Pole in Galicia, was an elegant representative of this school. After coming to Britain, changing his name and assuming British nationality, he worked for the Foreign Office during the First World War and liked to boast of his involvement in the destruction of the Habsburg state. Some years later, in a famous essay on the downfall of the Habsburg Monarchy, he wrote:

... the Austrian state ... did not exist except in reminiscences of the past and pious hopes for the future. ... Since 1867 Austria was what remained of the amorphous mass of the Habsburg possessions, the ‘home farm’ of the dynasty, after national states had arisen in Germany, Italy, and in certain respects also in Hungary. ... The Austria of 1867 was regarded by the Habsburgs as but a phase in the history of their dynastic power ... ; for them there was nothing final about it. Indeed they shunned finality ... they had a capital and a territorial base but no nationality. ... Their instincts were purely proprietary, the one meaning of an Austrian state to them was that they possessed it.

Namier’s hatred of the Habsburgs stemmed from his youthful experiences of the nationality problems of their empire. For historians of the left, however, its demise was part of the inevitable process of social and economic change as central Europe moved from feudalism through capitalism towards the ultimate triumph of socialism. So, for a great many historians across the political spectrum, the Habsburg Monarchy was a doomed state limping towards inevitable decomposition when the First World War came along to speed up the process.

The Victim of War?

But there is another school of historians which takes a very different point of view. They admit the discontent among the Monarchy’s various nationalities in the pre-1914 era. But they argue that none of these peoples was prepared to push its demands to the point of seceding from the Habsburg state. It was the strain of war, according to them, which proved too much for the not very robust fabric of the Danubian monarchy, as it proved too much also for the more powerful Russian and German empires. Some have even claimed that Austria-Hungary was rather more successful at withstanding the war’s effects than other combatants. It was the decision of the allies, under United States pressure, to support the national aspirations of the Czechs, Slovaks, South Slavs and Rumans in the summer of 1918, which encouraged those nations to secede, thus bringing about the disintegration of the Habsburg Monarchy. Up until that time, the destruction of Austria-Hungary had never been an allied war aim. A notable recent example of this school of thought is Dr Alan Sked in his The Decline and Fall of the Habsburg Empire. In it he writes:

Most students appear to believe that the Habsburg Monarchy was ‘in decline’ between 1867 and 1914. The common view among them seems to be that in 1914 it was on the brink of ‘collapse’ and that the First World War merely brought about the inevitable. In fact almost nobody inside the Monarchy was working for a republic during this period, and practically no one wanted to see the Monarchy break up. ... It was only defeat in war, therefore, which was to precipitate collapse. ... Had the Central Powers actually won the First World War, the Habsburg Monarchy would have survived not merely intact, but almost certainly expanded.

Here are two schools of thought coming to radically different conclusions about the likelihood of survival for the Habsburg Monarchy in 1914. We must now look, in a little more detail, at each of these points of view.

The Ausgleich and The Collapse of the Empire

First, the view that the Monarchy was doomed, war or no war. Writers of this school invariably focus on the Ausgleich or Compromise of 1867 which, they argue, set the Habsburg state on the road to ruin. The background to the agreement can be summarised briefly. The 1848 revolutions shook the Habsburg Empire to its core. For over a decade afterwards, the dynasty attempted to override the traditional regional institutions, the local nobilities, and the divisions between ‘historic’ and ‘non-historic’ peoples by imposing a centralised bureaucratic administrative system operated largely by German speaking officials. This was not done to ally the dynasty to one of the dominant racial groupings. The Habsburgs always realised they must remain above linguistic and racial disputes, and that it would be fatal for them to take sides. ‘Germanisation’ was simply an attempt to make government more efficient and effective. But a series of foreign policy disasters in the 1850s and 1860s culminating in the humiliating defeat by Prussia in 1866, brought this experiment to an end. Taking advantage of the dynasty’s weakness, the Magyars of Hungary forced the Emperor to do a deal with them, by which the unified Austrian Empire, based on Vienna, ceased to exist. In its place came the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary, two virtually sovereign countries linked in the person of a common ruler and a few joint ministries. Each part had a government and parliament of its own. Common to both was the person of the Emperor (who was King in Hungary), the ministries of Finance, Defence and Foreign Affairs. and a joint parliamentary body (known as the Delegations) of equal numbers from each part.

This Compromise really satisfied no one. For the Emperor, Franz Joseph, it was something unfortunate which he must undo at the earliest possible moment. Even for the Magyars, the chief beneficiaries of the new system, it was a step along the road rather than a final destination. Andrassy, a major architect of the agreement, was asked by Napoleon III of France why he and his fellow Magyar leaders had not demanded more from Franz Joseph while they had the chance. ‘For us, Sir’, Andrassy replied, ‘it was not a question of asking for all we could get, but of not asking for more than we could keep.’ For the time being the concessions wrung out of the Habsburgs in 1867 were as much as the Magyars could keep. But for the future, some of their leaders sought opportunities for demanding - and getting - more. For the ‘non-historic’ subject races, particularly those of Hungary who had remained loyal to the Habsburg dynasty during the Hungarian rebellion of 1849, being delivered into Magyar hands by their beloved Emperor was little short of black treachery. No one, therefore, considered the Ausgleich to be the last word in the development of the Habsburg state. All looked to the future for changes of one kind or another. But no significant changes ever came.

Magyar Benefits from the Ausgleich

The Ausgleich lasted another 51 years, as long as the Habsburg Monarchy. According to this school, it was this 1867 Compromise which pointed the Habsburg state towards its ultimate and inevitable collapse. They argue that because Hungary came to dominate the Dual Monarchy, and the Magyars of Hungary were interested only in themselves and the extension of their power. Over the next 40 years parliamentary government began to develop in the Austrian half of the state, and parliamentary politics came to be dominated by the linguistic issue; whereas in Hungary, by various means, the Magyars maintained a strong hold on power and largely excluded the minority races from political influence. This meant that when the Delegations - 60 members of the Austrian and Hungarian parliaments - met separately in Vienna and Budapest to look after the common interests of the dual state, the Hungarian delegation was always able to speak with a single united voice. The Austrian delegations, on the other hand, reflected the linguistic struggles of their half of the Monarchy. Magyars therefore almost always achieved their aims.

They succeeded on trade and the economy. Every 10 years, the customs union between Austria and Hungary had to be re-negotiated, and every 10 years the Magyars caused trouble: in 1877, 1887 and 1897. So much so that, in 1895, with another round of discussions - and therefore Magyar intransigence - due in two years, the Austrian Christian Socialist leader said to the Lower House of the Austrian parliament: ‘I consider Dualism as a misfortune, indeed as the greatest misfortune which my fatherland has ever had to suffer, a greater misfortune even than the wars we lost’. Considering the Habsburgs’ dismal record in nineteenth-century warfare, those were strong words. The Magyars haggled over their contribution to the joint exchequer. They haggled over tariff and trade agreements. They haggled over the use of Austria’s port of Trieste for imports and exports, insisting on building their own rival port at Fiume in Hungarian territory less than 50 miles away. And they haggled over the joint army, starving it of necessary funds and provoking even the easy-going Franz Joseph into threatening them with a constitutional crisis in 1905-6. Magyar obstructionism, aimed always at weakening the links with Austria and asserting Hungarian independence, fatally weakened the Monarchy well before 1914, according to this school.

But, they continue, it was weak enough already. Austria-Hungary was a dynastic state, a survival from the ancien régime in an age of rampant nationalism, a monarchy based upon peasant loyalty to their feudal lord in an era of burgeoning capitalism. How could such a relic survive?

The Empire’s Leaders

And what of the people at the top, those who were supposed to inspire that peasant loyalty - Emperor Franz Joseph and his heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand? Both men lack modern biographers1 but many words have been written about their characters and personalities. Namier, no friend of the Habsburgs, gets quite close to the real Franz Joseph in this description taken from his essay about the Emperor’s romantic (though apparently innocent) relationship with the Viennese actress, Katharina Schratt:

Lonely, never sure of himself, and very seldom satisfied with his own performance he worked exceedingly hard from a compelling sense of duty, but without deriving real satisfaction from his work. Shy, sensitive and vulnerable, and apprehensive that he might cut a poor or ridiculous figure, he took refuge in a still and lifeless formalism, which made him appear wooden, and in a spiritual isolation, which made him seem unfeeling or even callous. … He could not, and would not. ‘improvise’: everything had to be fixed beforehand, and no freedom was given to thought or to impulses.  … He found an unwonted release in his relationship with Kathi Schratt: and his deeper self - tender, immature, frustrated, and impoverished by lifelong imprisonment - appears [in his letters to her].

This was the figure, steeped in the dynasty’s history, surrounded by an intricate web of unchanging court etiquette, a slave to his sense of duty, dull, unimaginative and rather tragic, who was supposed to inspire the diverse races to remain loyal to the House of Habsburg. And his heir the Archduke Franz Ferdinand? The Emperor disliked his nephew and deliberately kept him away from the centre of power. A.J.P. Taylor described the Archduke as:

Violent, reactionary, and autocratic, Franz Ferdinand combined a crazy insistence on dynastic power with a marriage to a woman of non-royal blood, in breach of dynastic rules. Clericalism dominated his political schemes. … Aggressively despotic, ... like all his conservative predecessors, Franz Ferdinand hated national movements as soon as they became democratic. … Franz Joseph resented his interference and disregarded his plans.

This was the man to whom reformers looked to lead the Habsburg Monarchy into the twentieth-century world on his uncle’s death. It was a pious hope, historians of this school claim.

The Nationalities Issue in Austria

But it was the failure of the Monarchy to deal with the linguistic and racial problems of both halves which really sealed its fate, they argue. Once the dust of the 1867 Ausgleich had settled, Hungary and Cisleithania (the umbrella term for the part of the Monarchy still ruled from Vienna: the word ‘Austria’ wasn’t officially used to describe this area until 1915) both experienced serious problems with the subject races. For 12 years, until 1879, the Germans tried to establish dominance in the western half in the way the Magyars were increasingly doing in the east. But in elections that year they lost their majority, and Franz Joseph appointed his boyhood friend Count Taaffe as Prime Minister. ‘I do not belong to any party and am not a party minister,’ stated Taaffe on assuming office. ‘I am a minister appointed by the Crown and, if I may use the expression, an Imperial minister. The will of the Emperor must, and will, be decisive for me.’ This statement makes Taaffe sound like a blind reactionary. In fact, though loyal above all to the Crown, he realised he had to operate a parliamentary system, and did so for 15 years with considerable skill. His aim was to play off the linguistic groupings, one against the other, in the interests of the dynasty; or, as he himself put it, ‘to keep the races in a balanced state of mild dissatisfaction’. So long as every group felt that no one else was getting a better deal than itself, and so long as each group’s dissatisfaction was relatively mild, then the government could muddle through. This, say the critics of the Habsburgs, was a recipe for short-term survival, not long-term development and growth. But within a few years of his fall from power, many in the Austrian lands were looking back on the era of Taaffe as something of a golden age. The attempt, in 1897, by the Polish nobleman Badeni to introduce a language ordinance in Bohemia, putting the Czech language on a par with German, led to an explosion of communal violence unprecedented in the history of the Monarchy. The violence spread to the chamber of the Austrian parliament where nationalist leaders shouted and stamped their feet for hours on end, desks were banged, and inkpots hurled at the Speaker. The police were called in and parliament closed down. For the next 20 years the Austrian half of the Monarchy was ruled by a succession of non-parliamentary ministries composed largely of officials and civil servants. Parliamentary sessions were suspended for most of this time, and government could only be carried on by a liberal use of emergency decrees issued under the notorious Article XIV of the constitution. Despite the infrequency of parliamentary sessions racial bitterness and intolerance grew. Among the Germans, Georg von Schoenerer, leader of the German National Movement, preached the destruction of the Habsburg Monarchy, the superiority of the German race, and violent anti-Semitism. The young Adolf Hitler became an ardent supporter. The other races, too, had their extremist leaders. So, we are told, the attempt to solve the linguistic problems in the Austrian lands was a complete failure long before the shadows of war descended on the Monarchy in 1914.

The Nationalities Issue in Hungary

If the racial position in Austria was chaos, in Hungary it was tyranny. In the year after the Ausgleich the Hungarian Diet had passed a Nationalities Law guaranteeing the racial minorities the right to receive primary education in their mother tongue. In the same year, the fiercely patriotic Croats were given special rights in their homelands. But within a very short time both laws were being broken. Slovak speaking primary schools were closed down in 1874. The Magyar language was made compulsory in all schools in 1883. In 1907 all teachers were forced to take an oath making them liable to dismissal if their pupils did not understand Magyar. And the Croat Diet was helpless because it was under the authority of a Magyar governor. So the Magyars set out on a deliberate policy of Magyarisation - solving the linguistic problem by converting all citizens of Hungary into Magyars by education within the space of a generation or two. This, together with an extremely narrow electorate (on the eve of the war only 8 per cent of Hungarian citizens possessed the vote) kept power firmly in the hands of a Magyar ruling elite of great landowners. This elite was dedicated to the preservation of Magyar power in Hungary, and increasing Hungarian independence within the Dual Monarchy. The resentment caused by oppression in Hungary, we are told, equalled that caused by chaos in Austria. The racial and linguistic problems of both halves of the Monarchy were therefore insoluble, and total collapse could not be far away.

Habsburg Foreign Policy

The other arguments used by the anti-Habsburg school have been widely discussed and can be summarised briefly. Habsburg foreign policy, they claim, was a disaster. The Austro-German Alliance of 1879 tied the Monarchy to a peace-loving power; but the alliance continued when German policy became expansionist under William II. The decision to occupy Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1878 merely exacerbated the Monarchy’s racial problems by bringing yet more sullen Slavs under its control. And the annexation of 1908 was a piece of monumental folly which alienated Russia and turned Serbia into an implacable enemy. The antics of Conrad von Hötzendorff, Chief of the General Staff for most of the period 1906-17, with his calls for wars against Italy and Serbia at a time when the army was starved of funds by Magyar bloody-mindedness, would be amusing if they were not tragic. Even the so-called cultural renaissance, the flowering in Vienna after 1900 of Sigmund Freud the psychologist, Mahler and Schoenberg the composers, Mach the physicist and philosopher and Klimt the artist is seen by this school as an autumn rather than a spring. Karl Kraus described his country in these years as ‘a research laboratory for world destruction’.

The Future of Austria-Hungary in 1914

Austria-Hungary in 1914, then, is depicted as an anachronistic state torn apart by racial squabbles, with a suicidal foreign policy, presided over by an octogenarian dynast with few brains, and an heir whose look was backward rather than to the future. In the words of A.J.P. Taylor:

The Monarchy (was) not ... a solution (to the problems of central Europe); it ... rested on scepticism and the possibility of a ‘solution’ and ... therefore sought to conserve though without faith, institutions which had long lost moral sanction. The dynastic Empire maintained central Europe, as a plaster cast sustains a broken limb; ... it had to be destroyed before movement was possible ...


1 Since this article was written two biographies of Franz Joseph have been published. The first is an English translation of Jean-Paul Bled’s 1987 book originally written in French. The second is by Alan Palmer, Twilight of the Habsburgs. The two books provide interesting descriptions of aspects of life in the Habsburg Monarchy during Franz Joseph’s long reign, but do not alter the conventional picture of the Emperor and his age.

Next Issue, Vol. 3, No. 2

John Garland concludes the discussion in the December issue, in a second article, in which the strengths of the Austrian Monarchy are outlined, and the article concludes with an overall assessment of the Habsburg Monarchy's strength in 1914.

Words and concepts to note

jaundiced: having bitter or distorted views.

imminent: soon to occur.

secede: to separate formally from a state or federation or alliance.

burgeoning: to begin growth or flowering.

pious: excessively moralistic.

exacerbate: to intensify and make worse.

ancien r‚gime: an old form of government and society similar to that in Europe before 1789.

Questions to consider

w What was the main judgement of Henry Nevinson in 1909 on the future of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (see page 8)?

w Why was the 1867 Ausgleich made? In what ways was the Habsburg Monarchy disadvantaged by the Ausgleich?

w Why was the nationalities issue so important in the Habsburg Empire?

w Which approach to the nationalities issue was more likely to be successful for the stability of the Monarchy: the Austrian or the Magyar?


Further Reading: Jean-Paul Bled (trans. Teresa Bridgeman), Franz Joseph, Blackwell, 1992; Lavender Cassels, The Archduke and The Assassin, Dorset Press, 1984; Mark Cornwell (ed.), The Last Years of Austria-Hungary, University of Exeter Press, 1990; C.A. Macartney, The House of Austria, Edinburgh University Press. 1978; Alan Palmer, Twilight of the Habsburgs, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1994; Alan Sked: The Decline and Fall of the Habsburg Empire 1815-1918, Longmans, 1989; A.J.P. Taylor, The Habsburg Monarchy, Hamish Hamilton, 1948; Samuel R. Williamson Jr., Austria-Hungary and the Origins of the First World War, Macmillan, 1991; Z.A.B. Zeman, The Twilight of the Habsburgs, Macdonald, 1971.

The Strength of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in 1914 by John Garland. © new perspective 1997

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