It is hard to say exactly where the Austro-Hungarian Empire began. Some would say when the Turks surged through the Balkans and arrived in Eastern Europe, so weakening the Kingdom of Hungary that it would undergo a slow, but steady assimilation under the Habsburgs. Others would say after the defeat of Rakoczi’s War of Independence in 1711. Hungary then had no other choice, but submission to Habsburg rule. These two examples are lacking in one regard. Though these historical events may have pushed Hungary ever closer to the Austrians, neither speaks to the equality between the two that was a hallmark of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Because the Dual Monarchy was officially formed in 1867, we might need to search for an event closer to that date.
Starting Points – The End of A Beginning
To my mind, it is the Austro-Hungarian defeat at the Battle of Koniggratz (Hradec Kralove in the Czech Republic) in 1866 by the Prussian Army that signals the unofficial beginning of the Dual Monarchy. Fear is a great motivator, and it was fear that of absorption in a new German Empire that motivated the Austrians to look for an internal partner to help save the Monarchy. Despite, or perhaps because the Hungarians had rebelled against Austrian rule in 1848-49, Franz Josef and the Austrian leadership decided that union with Hungary made the most sense. The Hungarians had other advantages as well. They were the second largest ethnic group in the Habsburg Empire.
Hungarians were an unruly bunch that were as difficult to control as they were to please. There was also the personal chemistry and connection between Queen Elisabeth (otherwise known as Sisi) and Count Gyula Andrassy that led Elisabeth to lean on her husband, Franz Josef to consider the creation of a Dual Monarchy. Like most empires, there is not a single point that acts as a definitive starting point for the beginning of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. On the other hand, there was a defining event that solidified the Monarchy’s creation. The crowning of Franz Josef and Elisabeth as King of Hungary and Queen of Hungary at the Matthias Church atop Castle Hill in Buda on June 8, 1867. This symbolically united Austria and Hungary under the person of Franz Josef. It would stay that way until his death over a half century later.
An Empire’s Demise – Nails In The Coffin
If finding a starting point for Austria-Hungary is difficult, finding an end point is just as troublesome. Revolutions sprouted up like mushrooms across imperial lands from Transylvania to the Tyrol in the autumn of 1918. The revolutions were followed by splintering states as a plethora of obscure pseudo-political entities – such as the Republic of Prekmurje and Republic of Banat to name but two – arose and fell with hardly anyone taking notice. There were other events great and small which portended total collapse. King Karl relinquishing his throne, mutinies on the Eastern Front, the once glittering imperial capital of Vienna swelling with starving citizens. Many of the places and all the people involved in the Empire’s dissolution have long since vanished. Finding a tangible site associated with the empire’s demise is not easy.
One of the more interesting sites associated with the dissolution of Austria-Hungary can be found in a place where you might least expect to find it. In the Veneto Region of northeastern Italy, outside the city of Padua, stands the Villa Giusti, home to an empty room where the empire crumbled. For an empire that is usually associated in the popular imagination with aristocracy, grand palaces, glittering balls and gilded romances, the Villa Giusti is a fitting place to contemplate Austria-Hungary. One might be forgiven, to think the Villa Giusti would be more representative of the empire at its apogee rather than its conclusion. In those strange and historic days that made up the final phase of World War I, the Villa Giusti was one of the final acts in the imperial endgame.
The Dual Monarchy Disintegrates – End of War, End of Empire
Long before the First World War brought the Villa Giusti fame and notoriety, its history began not as a noble manor, but the result of martial efforts in the region. Historians believe the Villa first took shape as a medieval fortification before it was eventually converted to a residence. In the latter part of the 19th century the villa underwent a restoration that made it a bit more appealing, but it was never an aesthetic delight. The villa was owned by Count Vettor Giusti del Giardino, one of those European aristocrats who seems just as antiquated as the empire which crumbled to bits beneath the roof of his villa. Giardino was mayor of nearby Padua and appointed a senator in Italy during the war. His villa was used as a temporary residence for three months during the war by Italian King Victor Emmanuel who sought to avoid the aerial bombardment being inflicted upon Padua.
The Villa was selected for armistice negotiations at the beginning of November 1918 due to its proximity near the front and the fact that Austria-Hungary’s intelligence services knew little about it. The negotiations took three days and were contentious at times, causing the Italian commander Badoglio to threaten to break off talks on the final day. This broke the impasse and resulted in what became known to history as the Armistice of Villa Giusti. Effective within 24 hours, Austro-Hungarian forces were to cease all hostilities. They were also to withdraw from Italian territory and any territory that was disputed with Italy. And this was just the start. Triple Entente forces (France, Great Britain and Italy) would be allowed rights of transit through Austro-Hungarian territory which meant Germany would be facing a new front.
The Breaking Point – A Singular Event
Speaking of Germany, their forces were to be expelled from Austria-Hungary within 15 days. The Germans had propped the empire up throughout the war out of self-interest. The idea was for Austria-Hungary to fight on to keep Germany’s soft southern underbelly was safe from enemy incursions. Now Germany could face war on multiple fronts, while its forces in France were stretched to the breaking point. The armistice’s effect was devastating to both the empire and its allies. Austria-Hungary was left with virtually no means of defending itself against its enemies, internal or external. This meant that the Entente Forces had a free hand in the old imperial lands and revolutionaries could run amuck. Either could impose their will and implement whatever policies they felt were necessary. The war was over for Austria-Hungary, the empire was not far behind.
As for the Villa Giusti, it outlived the historic events that occurred within its walls. Today the room where the armistice was negotiated has been left in the same condition as it was at the time. Anyone can visit and contemplate a singular event that helped topple the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is both strange and humbling to see where an empire that once encompassed the shores of the Adriatic Sea, massive mountains ranges such as the Carpathians and Tatras and across the rich agricultural lands of Hungary and western Ukraine, collapsed in an old, forgotten and decrepit villa. Those words, “old” “forgotten” and “decrepit” also describe Austria-Hungary at its end. At the Villa Giusti, the empire was finally put out of its misery.