The First Frontier – Leitha River: Austria-Hungary’s Internal Divide

The sun began to fade as evening slowly settled upon the Burgenland.  We were traveling along the eastern extremity of Austria, the non-touristy part where the Alps are a distant dream that evaporated long ago into the western horizon. The chill of autumn was in the air. It was just me and my travel companion, a fellow history buff, who a half hour earlier had been inspecting the Roman ruins at Petronell-Carnuntum. Now we were speeding eastward along the A1 motorway in Austria, racing against the dying light so we could make it back beyond the Hungarian border to our accommodation before nightfall. The border between Austria and Hungary was still many minutes away, when I spotted a highway exit sign for Bruck an der Leitha. The end of that name sparked a reminder. One that made me recall another border, one both internal and historical that was marked by the River Leitha.

My travel companion on this trip was an extremely knowledgeable American who was well versed in European history. The problem was that European history in the American education system is code for the history of Western Europe. Russia was also thrown in for good measure due to its historical heft. The idea of studying Austria-Hungary was anathema except for academics and armchair historians. The extent to which the history of Austria-Hungary has been taught in American schools falls somewhere between very little and not at all. It sometimes makes a cameo in discussions on the outbreak of World War I when some self-important Archduke gets gunned down in Sarajevo. Other than that, Austria-Hungary is viewed as an antiquated and almost anonymous empire, an aristocratic anachronism not worth bothering about. All this may seem like an exaggeration, but it is not. In all seriousness, even the most educated American history buff knows next to nothing about Austria-Hungary.

A Fluid Frontier - The Leitha River during snowmelt season (Credit Wolfgang Glock)

A Fluid Frontier – The Leitha River during snowmelt season (Credit: Wolfgang Glock)

A Little River – A Big Empire
None of that stopped me from pointing out to my friend that we were about to pass over the River Leitha on the A1. I told him that this had been the main internal border between Austria and Hungary during the Dual Monarchy. My comment elicited a rather bland reply of “Yeah.” The indifferent and perplexed tone of his voice was understandable. Indifference, because the Leitha is not a large river or especially notable in anyway. We could see little of it from the highway. Perplexity, because my friend knew nothing of this tepid river in reference to an empire that no longer existed. The border between the Austrian and Hungarian halves of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was marked by this little river. The Austrian half was known as Cisleithania, while the Hungarian half was Transleithania. The River Leitha thus played an outsized role in the split personality of the empire.

The Leitha’s role in dividing an empire is now largely forgotten. Since the border had long since disappeared in a political sense, it meant nothing to him or the tens of thousands of travelers who pass over it each day. It was strange to think that something which had been rather important not only to Austria-Hungary, but also to the frontiers of those two countries for upwards of a thousand years was now little more than what it had originally been, a small river. And at times, not even that. Due to canals and agricultural projects it is sucked pretty much dry by the time it arrives downstream. I knew that there was so much more to the Leitha than a dry stream bed. Such as its defining role in the region’s history.

In a Dry Season - The Leitha River without water

In a Dry Season – The Leitha River without water (Credit: Peter Haas)

Centuries In The Making – The Situation Is Fluid
The current situation, where the Leitha River no longer demarcates part of the border between Austria and Hungary, is the exception rather than the rule when it comes to the past thousand years of history in the area. The Leitha does demarcate a border today, but it is part of an internal Austrian provincial one between Lower Austria and Burgenland. This is quite a climb down from its historical role as a border between the Austrian lands and the Hungarian ones. At times, the Leitha as a border was just as fluid as the river itself. It all started with the Hungarians’ arrival in east-central Europe during the 9th century. They kept conquering westwards into the lands which now consist of Austria and Bavaria. This encroachment into German lands was finally stopped in the mid-10th century at the Battle of Lechfeld. Not only was the Hungarian advance halted, but the Germans began to reconquer parts of what is present day Austria. This counter movement to the east stagnated along the eastern shores of the Leitha.

Little did anyone know at the time that a near perpetual border had been set in place. To get an idea of just how long ago this was, consider that Hungary was not yet a Christian Kingdom, instead it was a principality. To its east was the Margravate of Austria, the easternmost appendage of the Duchy of Bavaria. The idea of nation-states did not exist during the Middle Ages, but borders did, even if they were as fluid as a river or in this case were made up of a river. One can easily imagine that the Leitha was much more wild and impressive in those days. A great deal more difficult to cross, especially in the springtime when the river flooded. This made it a formidable barrier, a more natural rather than political one. The Leitha as a political border in a legal sense was still many centuries in the making.

A Defining Relationship – The Other Side Of The Border
Fortresses were constructed on the Austrian side of the Leitha during the 12th century, helping to stabilize and solidify the border. Measures to secure it, made it that much more recognizable. Legal recognition of the border came in the early 15th century when a deed issued by the Hungarian King Sigismund set its placement. Yet it was the Austrians not the Hungarians who grew much more powerful in the region over the ensuing centuries. This allowed them to to define the terms of their relationship with Hungary and by extension, the Leitha as a border.

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