The Austro-Hungarian Empire Revisited

A while back Dan sent me a book by an Austrian author and intellectual Stefan Zweig titled The World Of Yesterday. This book is the author’s auto-biography that he wrote from Brazil in the early 1940s when Hitler was at the apex of his power and had overrun France and his beloved Paris and basically destroyed the Jewish intellectual culture in the region; after sending it to his biographer the author killed himself. You can see the post-it note that Dan put on the book – “one of the best books I have ever read”.

Stefan describes Austria under the regime of the Austro-Hungarian empire, when Vienna was the cultural center. The portrait is of an intellectually enlightened culture where music and the arts are held in high esteem; part of this is due to the fact that the author’s family owned a successful business and they also resided in what was presumably the wealthiest part of the empire.

It is my own ignorance but I generally lumped the Germans and the Austrians into one ethnicity in my mind and this book calls out the differences. The Germans are seen as the efficiency-expert types and the Austrians are by comparison tolerant and focused on the arts. As the climate against the Jews turns from bad to worse it is the Germans (whether in Germany or the ethic Germans in the borders of the empire) that lead this effort.

All in all a great book about an intellectual leader who was part of a proud and ambitious art culture but watched it all laid waste under the rise of the Nazis. In the end his entire world was effectively destroyed, as the Austro-Hungarian empire fell (replaced with deprivation for the surviving states) and then finally almost all of continental Europe fell under the boot of fascism.

In parallel I purchased an award-winning book about a WW1 front of which I knew very little, the war between Italy and Austro-Hungary on the Italian border called The White War by Thompson. This book describes the futile Italian offensives as the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian army attempts to hold them off against the provinces of its empire.

My knowledge of the Italian front was limited and incomplete; the combined offensive with the Germans at Caporetto in 1917 was well known not only because Rommel won his Pour Le Merit (highest military honor) at this engagement but that Hemingway documented it in fiction through “A Farewell to Arms” as the Italians collapsed. The time of 1915-1917 and repeated battles in the mountainous region consumed armies on both sides in difficult mountainous conditions and in harsh winter weather. In fact Caporetto is also known as Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo, to put the series of attrition-like engagements in context.

One item that stood out to me throughout the book was how they would identify the Austro-Hungarian troops based upon the regions from which their units were raised; whether they were Czech riflemen or Bosnian soldiers. And although the armies faced terrible hardships, in general these troops from differing nationalities fought for their empire right up to the end.

Despite blizzards of propaganda by Czech, Yugoslav, Polish and other separatist groups; half a million POW s returning from Russia, many of them newly politicized and loudly critical; extremely degrading conditions at the front, and the disappearance of any hope of victory – despite all this, the Hapsburg army remained loyal. There were no mutinies on the Italian front until late October, just before the last battle; even these were limited to a few units.

In today’s world there is a view among intellectuals that differences among groups are receding and that entities like the European Union or the UN can bring them together for coherent and common purposes. On the other hand, there is the reality “on the ground”, as nations split into smaller and smaller pieces, such as the Yugoslavian split, the Czech / Slovak split, and the likely impending Belgium split.

In the twenty first century the world is continuing a tradition of splintering nations into tinier entities, along ethnic lines, and with resources or major cities being the main prizes that are fought over. While this occurs there is a “gloss” of cooperation and collaboration that is more theater and for show.

It is interesting how this “false” world of collaboration (where it is in everyone’s best interests) contrasts with the much more public and up-front efforts of running an empire like Austro-Hungary. In fact the monarchs were aware of public opinion and for its day attempted to preserve customs and religions of the areas under its control, and to leverage the resources and skills of its far-flung citizens. While the downsides of the empire are well known (lack of self determination for every nationality), the empire as a whole had rapid economic growth, a consolidated foreign policy, and investment in areas such as transportation (rail) and post systems that benefited everyone.

The Austro-Hungarian empire also provided the Jewish culture in Vienna and elsewhere with relative protection compared to what they faced elsewhere (Russia) and later (with the rise of Hitler and the ultimate annexation of Austria). It is this world that dissolved and was utterly destroyed in the Zweig book, leading to his eventual suicide at the time of Paris’s occupation by the Germans in the early 1940s.

While you’d be seen as “insane” to advocate anything similar to the Austro-Hungarian empire in today’s world of hyper-local countries with a pan-gloss of cooperation, it would be an interesting thought experiment to see if nationalities could work together for a common good, even including military efforts. Today’s EU has a poor standing military; it is the member states that provide specific firepower. In 1914-8 the Austro-Hungarian empire brought soldiers together willing to die for their common goals, and in the context of that era (not by today’s context) they were relatively successful, until toppled by the two “isms” of nationalism and the incipient communism / fascism that was to plague the thirties and forties.

Cross posted at LITGM

15 thoughts on “The Austro-Hungarian Empire Revisited”

  1. Ever since the Roman Empire fell in 476 Europeans have fought wars to rebuild it. WWII ended the dream when the Americans conquered the entire Roman world and then left, stating they didn’t want it. France, Germany, Italy and England realized they didn’t want it and abandoned their colonies – many of which were parts of ancient Rome.

    However Russia still will go to war to get a warm water port in the South for access to the Med and another in the North for access to the Atlantic. China will go to war to rebuild the Empire of the Qin. And perhaps the Mongol empire although Chinese are not Mongols.

    Amazingly all the nations that were part of the European Roman Empire have banded together to form the E.U. because they realize that size matters. Some parts on the Asian Roman Empire are trying to join. What could not be done for 1600 years through war has been achieved in peace.

    Obama has dedicated himself to forcing the E.U. to militarize and obtain nuclear weapons so that it can be taken seriously. He does this by refusing to defend them.

  2. One caution about Austrian innocence in the 1930s and 40s. A disproportionate number of SS officers were Austrian. Just as Koreans were often the worst of the Japanese POW camp guards, Austrians had a bad reputation in the German Nazi government. Some of this may be an attempt by Germans to evade responsibility but there have been a few embarrassments among Austrians.

    I do know that Austrians go to some lengths to let others know they are not Germans, such as wearing clothing with bone and leather trim to differentiate themselves. They will readily admit it.

  3. Recently read “When Money Dies,” by Adam Fergusson. Although it’s advertised as the history of the Weimar inflation, much of it is actually about the great *Austrian* inflation, which got started several years before the German one, and appears to have been just about as bad. Some of the descriptions of what this did to individuals are painful to read even after all these years.

  4. People around here, and especially the esteemed Dr. Kennedy, know a lot about the Austro-Hungrian Empire, inter-war Austria, and modern Austria.

    All I can say is that north of Munich, I get blank stares, around Salzburg they correct my grammer, but south of the front line described by Hemmingway, I speak flawless German.

  5. Agreed on Austrian innocence during WW2. There were a lot of individuals happy to be annexed by the Germans. Those people participated with zeal in the subsequent war. It is the others (especially the Jews and their culture) that were extinguished during this time.

    Recently the Klimt pictures were brought back from Austria by descendants of the original purchasers. I’m sure money was a big part of the reason but another part was that the Austria that remains today has little or nothing as far as the people of the time that Klimt lived there (per this woman, at least). This was the NY Times obituary for the woman who pursued the paintings I found it interesting.

    Also thanks to Dan for bringing me out of the stone ages and into the age of Tiny URL :)

  6. Stefan describes Austria under the regime of the Austro-Hungarian empire, when Vienna was the cultural center. The portrait is of an intellectually enlightened culture where music and the arts are held in high esteem

    Unfortunately when a city becomes known as a center of high culture, that is almost a sign of stagnation. Growing, dynamic cities and cultures generate a lot of “vulgar” art, not high-art.

    The primary social function of high art is to express wealth and social status. High art is a form of conspicuous consumption. When a society grows stagnant and loses economic and political competition, competition switches to the arts. This is especially true of fading aristocracies. As the aristocrats find they can contribute less and less to functioning of society they more and more try to use art to portray themselves as superior and enlightened people. It’s more about marketing on the individual and class level than it is about appreciating art for its own sake.

    The “vibrancy” of Vienna was caused by the friction of a falling military-aristocracy rubbing against the rising commercial middle-class. Everybody got in on the game. The aristocrats try to use the arts to maintain their own status and the nouveau riche try to use it to display their new wealth and thereby grab some status of their own.

    It doesn’t last. The city eventually slips into the role of quite museum city.

  7. An entertaining but generally accurate fictional portrait of the Italo-Austrian segment of WW1 can be found in John Biggins’ Sailor of Austria series. Its protagonist is a fictional comrade of the real-life Georg von Trapp,of Sound of Music fame, an Austro-Hungarian submarine commander. The multi-national character of the Hapsburg services is brought out well.

  8. I look forward to reading The White War, as my father fought on Monte Grappa. I have been searching for a very long time or a history to place his war story in context. Why has it taken nearly a century for a definitive history of the the Italian front to be published?

  9. I asked for one thing for Christmas, Stefan Zweig’s book The World of Yesterday. Jacques Barzun, in his book From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Present spoke highly of the Zweig book, and I have wanted to read it ever since reading Barzun. My wife got the Zweig book for me, and I finished it this morning. It is the first book I finished in 2010, and the bar has been set very high for the rest of the year. It is one of the best books I have ever read.

    Remember Lex’s post from last year?

    The comments thread is lovely on that post. And this one, too….

    A book bleg: good books about the Indian Army, from either an Indian or British perspective, and the Burma campaign? Remember: I am a neophyte at this and need clear, well-written books. Heavy history gets me confused. I tend to do better with diaries for some reason, maybe because they sometimes read like a novel.

    – Madhu

  10. Madhu,

    Sir William Slim’s Defeat into Victory is one of the best books you’ll ever read. For my money, it is also the best General’s Memoir ever (slightly better than Grant’s).


  11. I second the recommendation from William Slim’s book (brief excerpt here)…another book that goes well with it is George MacDonald Fraser’s “Quartered Safe Out Here” (yes, that same GMF who wrote the Flashman novels.) GMF served in the ranks in the Burma campaign, so by reading the two books together you get a view of the same campaign from both the top and the bottom.

  12. @ Chris and David Foster: Thank you so much for the suggestion! I am seeing reference to this book everywhere these days….

    – Madhu

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