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Oct 2011 Journal

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The Habsburg twilight

Archduke Otto von Habsburg, son of the last emperor of Austria-Hungary, died on 4 July 2011, at the age of 98. His passing broke the last living link with the Habsburg monarchy, which had ruled Austria from 1278, when Rudolf I defeated Ottokar II of Bohemia at the Battle on the Marchfeld and assumed control of the Duchies of Austria, Styria and Carinthia, until 1918. The Habsburgs were one of the great dynasties of Europe, an imperial house more ancient and historic, one might argue, than the upstart Hohenzollerns, who had been mere kings of Prussia and had only attained the dignity of German emperors in 1871.

Amazingly, Otto von Habsburg had as a boy shaken the hand of his great-great-uncle, the Emperor Franz Joseph. For Franz Joseph was born in 1830 and had ascended to the imperial throne in 1848, after the revolution that had swept away Chancellor Metternich and the mentally unfit Emperor Ferdinand. But if Otto von Habsburg was a living link to a past that extended back into the first half of the nineteenth century, it was a past overshadowed by the twilight melancholy of apparently unstoppable decline. The Austrian monarchy that had emerged from the convulsions of 1848, having crushed the uprisings in Hungary and northern Italy as well as the popular movement in Vienna, seemed to be strong enough to act as the great power in Central Europe and among the German states; in 1850, under Schwarzenberg, Metternich’s successor, Austria was able to impose its will on Prussia, dictating terms to its German rival under the Punctation of Olmütz.

But appearances were deceptive. In 1859, Austria was defeated by France in the war in Italy, the first in a series of defeats and setbacks that dogged Franz Joseph throughout his reign. Defeat by France was followed in 1866 by defeat by Prussia, which excluded Austria from Germany. By 1879, Austria’s weakness in the face of Russian ambitions in the Balkans obliged it to form an alliance with Bismarck’s Germany, and it was as the junior partner in that alliance that Austria entered the First World War, which was to lead to the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918.

In the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or Dual Monarchy, that emerged in 1867, the emperor (Kaiser) of Austria was also king (König) of Hungary; hence the title ‘kaiserlich und königlich’, or ‘k. und k.’, that was regularly bestowed on the Habsburg administration, its institutions and officials. This in turn gave rise to the imaginary realm of Kakanien, a term coined in Robert Musil’s novel Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man without Qualities), a state administered through an impenetrably hierarchical and immobile bureaucracy. It was this lumbering imperial monolith, incapable of resolving either the national conflicts or the social tensions that beset it, that in 1914 lurched into the conflagration that destroyed it.

A particularly sad figure in the final act of this drama was the last emperor, Karl I, great-nephew of the aged Franz Joseph and father of Otto von Habsburg. When he succeeded Franz Joseph in November 1916, the 29-year-old Karl faced a disastrous situation that he sought desperately to remedy. But he lacked the means to prevent the empire disintegrating into its national component parts under the enormous strain of the war. For Austria-Hungary had become totally dependent on her German ally; whether she lived or died would ultimately be determined by the success of German arms on the battlefield.

By 1916, Austria’s military weakness had become only too apparent. The inability of her forces to resist the Russian armies without German support had been demonstrated early on, when the Russians drove far into Galicia, capturing the key Austrian fortress of Przemysl; and the Austrian armies were further humiliated by their failure to overcome the resistance of Serbia, which collapsed only when Bulgarian forces invaded the country from the east. Only on the Italian front did the Austrians hold their own, and even then they needed German backing to achieve the victory of Caporetto (1917). The German army’s opinion of its ally was expressed succinctly in the phrase ‘We are fettered to a corpse.’ Internally, the national and social conflicts besetting the empire had hollowed out such cohesion as it still possessed, bringing the spectre of its collapse ever closer.

In this extreme situation, Karl, a decent and (by Habsburg standards) progressive man, sought, in the words of his accession manifesto, ‘to win back for my peoples the sorely missed blessings of peace’; his efforts to achieve peace earned him the title ‘Friedenskaiser’ (‘Friede’ meaning ‘peace’). Karl was married to Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma, and it was her elder brother, Prince Sixtus, a French national, that the emperor attempted to use in 1917 as an intermediary to initiate peace negotiations with the Allies, in the famous ‘Sixtus Affair’. But the plan had little chance of success in the face of French and Italian opposition, even though the British prime minister, Lloyd George, supported it. In the final analysis, Austria-Hungary could not abandon Germany, and Germany, effectively controlled by its military leaders, Hindenburg and Ludendorff, had no strategy other than that of securing victory on the battlefield.

When US President Wilson included the principle of national self-determination in his Fourteen Points of January 1918, the writing was on the wall for Habsburg rule over its increasingly restive subject nationalities. With the defeat of the German armies on the western front in autumn 1918, the Habsburg Empire lost its last underpinning. Austria-Hungary disintegrated, leaving Austria as a small rump state, and on 11 November the emperor formally renounced power. But this did not bring an end to Karl’s imperial pretentions. In 1921, he twice attempted to seize power in Hungary, in somewhat bizarre bids to regain the imperial crown. The first attempt, the so-called ‘Easter Bid’, was thwarted when he was outmanoeuvred in negotiations by the Regent of Hungary, Admiral Miklos Horthy, a former officer in the Austro-Hungarian navy, who had in November 1918 sworn never to rest until he had restored the emperor to his thrones in Vienna and Budapest. Then in October 1921 the forces supporting Karl were defeated by those loyal to Horthy in a skirmish in the suburbs of Budapest. This fiasco spelt the end of Karl’s political career; a British warship conveyed him to Madeira, where he died in 1922.

The passing of the Habsburg Empire was much mourned, not least by the Empire’s Jews, who knew that Franz Joseph had been sympathetic to them throughout his long reign, intervening to protect them from anti-Semitic actions and refusing for two years to confirm the appointment of Karl Lueger, father of political anti-Semitism, as mayor of Vienna. Fittingly, the greatest literary tribute to the monarchy, the novel Radetzkymarsch (The Radetzky March) (1932), was written by a Jew from Galicia, Joseph Roth. Even among the Jewish refugees from Austria who settled in Britain after 1938, nostalgia for the monarchy was widespread. I doubt that I was the only son of refugees brought up as an English schoolboy in north-west London in the fifties who also learned to hum the march of the Hoch- und Deutschmeister Regiment Nr. 4, one of the historic regiments of the Habsburg army. In its inimitable Viennese, this has the refrain: ‘Mir san (we are) vom k. und k. Infanterieregiment/ Hoch- und Deutschmeister Numero Vier’, to which the populace added the appropriate rhyme ‘aber stier’ (‘but we’re broke’).

The disappearance of Austria-Hungary created a power vacuum in Central and Eastern Europe, where the small states that succeeded it fell under the sway first of Hitler, then of Stalin. It is often argued that, had the Dual Monarchy survived, much of Europe would have been spared the horrors visited upon it by the two dictators. For the very existence of a powerful state in East Central Europe after 1918 would have blocked Hitler’s first extensions of German territory (into Austria and Czechoslovakia) as well as the expansion of German influence into Eastern and South-Eastern Europe that was so vital to the creation of a German-dominated power bloc.

Traditionalists are often wont to lament the dissolution of the Habsburg monarchy in 1918 as the removal of a crucial barrier to Nazi expansionism. On the other hand, one can argue that the monarchy, by reason of its inability to reform itself and to adapt itself constitutionally to the era of mass politics, had by 1918 already failed in its mission of creating a viable multinational state uniting the ethnic groups of East Central Europe. Ultimately, the monarchy proved incapable of resolving the conflicting aspirations of its constituent nationalities, which would have meant breaking the hold of the dominant groups, German Austrians and Hungarians, just as it was unable to create truly democratic institutions to satisfy the political demands of the mass of its population. On this argument, the monarchy, far from being the solution to the Central European problem, stands accused of playing an important part in the region’s destabilisation.

Anthony Grenville

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