Miracle of Illogic – The Austro-Hungarian Empire In Hindsight

Deep within the dusty tomes of long forgotten history books, hidden nuggets of illuminating information have been known to arise. The old saying that the truth is stranger than fiction can have a much deeper meaning when a fresh light is cast on a once obscure past. As we happen to be on the cusp of the 100th Anniversary of the First World War I have been doing some research on one of my favorite subjects, the Austro-Hungarian Military. Lately I have had the distinct pleasure of reading through Austria-Hungary’s Last War 1914 – 1918 prepared by the Austrian Federal Ministry of the Army and War Archive. This seven volume set was first published in 1930. Up until just a few years ago there was no English translation available. In 2010, a translation was finally completed by historian Stan Hanna. What an incredible achievement! The seven volumes run to several thousand pages in length. One hazards to guess how Hanna was able to do it all. With this translation English speaking military history buffs now have a window into nearly every facet of the Austro-Hungarian military apparatus during the Great War. A panoramic view is now available of the most multi-cultural empire in European history.

Ethnic map of Austria-Hungary

Ethnic map of Austria-Hungary

To the Ends of an Empire
Consider that it was almost exactly one hundred years ago when the Austria-Hungary went to war with a polyglot group of Central and Eastern Europeans who were tied together for better or worse by an old and faltering monarchy. The empire was home to 51 million people, consisting of nine different ethnic groups of at least a million or more in population. This demographic breakdown still has the power to amaze and confound. How such a multi-cultural, ethnic stew stayed together as long as it did, has become the subject of many debates.

Even more astonishing is the fact that during World War One, the army fought on three separate fronts, suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties, numerous setbacks and yet still somehow held together until the very last months of the conflict. Seemingly against all logic, a motley collection of ethnicities carried on a war in some of the most undesirable circumstances and locales experienced by any army in the modern age. Yes there were mutinies at times, yes there were disgruntled soldiers, desertions and surrenders, yes the empire disintegrated at the end of the war. These facts are all indisputable. Yet the empire also lasted for nearly the entire duration of the war, despite a panoply of competing cultures and nationalities vying for freedom, respect and independence.

All for One, One Against All
Perhaps the best way of trying to understand the miracle of illogic that was the Austro-Hungarian Empire is to breakdown just one of the many fascinating statistics found in the seven volumes. On page 42 of Austria-Hungary’s Last War, 1914 – 1918, Volume 1 is the following sentence: “Out of every 100 soldiers in the Austro-Hungarian Army there were 25 Germans, 23 Magyars, 13 Czechs, 9 Serbo-Croats, 8 Poles, 8 Ruthenes, 7 Romanians, 4 Slovaks, and 1 Italian.” This breakdown is quite compelling when viewed with hindsight. Today we know what became of the empire’s ethnic constituents.

Start with the fact that all of the above ethnic groups were squeezed within the borders of a single governing entity. The pressure of that squeeze caused fissures and faults along ethnic lines. The cracks exposed new nations and states, some of which have stood the test of time and others that have long since been resigned to the dustbin of history. A look at what became of these peoples in the aftermath of the empire’s dissolution is revealing. The Germans were predominantly from what would become the nation of Austria. It has been a successful state by any measure, excepting the period when it was sucked up into the vortex of Nazism. Other groups of Germans were scattered in several areas further east. Following the Second World War, luck, fate or a combination of both led them back to Germany via expulsion. The Magyars became a nation, now that they were no longer allowed to be the Kingdom of Hungary. For those Hungarians who still long to right the injustice of the Kingdom’s dismembering by the postwar Treaty of Trianon, they need to keep in mind that in the kingdom, Magyars were barely half the populace. In Hungary today they make up over 90% of the population. The war tore apart the Kingdom, but gave them a nation they can always call their own.

Austro-Hungarian soldiers in 1915. Ready for war or the end of an empire

Austro-Hungarian soldiers in 1915. Ready for war or the end of an empire

A Constant State of Becoming
The Czechs united with the Slovaks, creating a state which only lasted until the next war. It rose again after the war, but was peacefully sundered from within. Less than five years after the iron curtain ceased to exist so did Czechoslovakia. The Serbo-Croats started a South Slav state of their own, which descended into warring statelets due to the Second World War. Afterwards it was put back together again, but fell apart once and for all time following the end of communism. Freedom had a strange and unsettling effect on became known as the former Yugoslavia. The Poles finally got their nation back following the Great War, only to have it blown into near oblivion by the Nazis. Somehow it survived. Today it represents a successful, if precarious example of a successful post-communist state.

Then there was the Ruthenes, a people who have become the heart of Ukrainian nationalism in the western Ukraine today. Turning towards the west and then forced east, they are in a constant state of becoming. The story is much the same today as it was during the final decades of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Galicia playing its stereotypical role as impoverished backwater has been Europeanized with some success. The Romanians already had their nation, but to them it was never complete without Transylvania. They have pretty much had it that way – with one notable Hungarian forced exception – since the Great War. They have Transylvania, but will they ever have prosperity? And then there were the Tyrol Italians, caught between the Germanic and Latin worlds. They say you can’t have your cake and eat it too, but freed from the shackles of empire these Italians were gluttons who managed to escape the punishing legacy of a post imperial world.

Vanishing Act
In a nutshell, this is the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s constituent parts. What had been all for one prior to the Great War, became every ethnicity for itself at the end of the war. It was self-interest over collective interest. This was the ultimate betrayal of Austria-Hungary and led directly to its ruin. The results were or still are today: Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Yugoslavia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Poland, Greater Romania, the Soviet Union, Ukraine and Greater Italy. The loosely unified yet fatally flawed empire is today twelve disparate nations. A whole new world has come into being, born from a vanished one.

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