An Austro-Hungarian State Of Mind – Bridge on the Leitha: Together One Last Time

Austria-Hungary or the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I never thought much about the way in which that name was ordered. It always seemed quite natural that Austria would be in front of Hungary. Austria is wealthy and more well known, Hungary still shadowed, if no longer shrouded in my mind, by its decades hidden away behind an Iron Curtain. Their capital cities belie these differences, Vienna is much larger and its sparkle much greater than that of Budapest. The two cities’ relationship is the same today as it was back in the days of empire. The way it was happens to be the way it is today. Then there is the not insignificant matter of semantics. To say Hungary-Austria just does not sound right.

There is also the matter of chronology.  Austria allowed Hungary into the empire, not the other way around. Austria came first and Hungary followed. Even the Hungarians recognized this as such. In a language that runs counter to every other European one, the Hungarians still managed to call the empire Osztrak-Magyar Monarchia. That needs little translation because it is the same thing being said in the same way. They who controlled the empire, controlled the way it was expressed and internally divided. This was a literal and spoken truth when it came to Austria-Hungary. The Austrians knew it, the Hungarians acknowledged it.

An Empire in Full - Map with names of Austro-Hungarian Lands

An Empire in Full – Map with names of Austro-Hungarian Lands (Credit: Wikipedia – Public Domain)

Austrian Rules – The Terms Of Discussion & Division
Just as the wording of the empire’s name was by Austrian design, so it would be much the same when the Leitha River was used as a naming convention. The river served as a useful topographic symbol when dividing the empire’s Austrian and Hungarian halves. This is not surprising since Austria always managed to control the terms of discussion and internal division in its relationship with Hungary. In an Orwellian bit of irony, both sides were equal, but one was more equal than the other. The Leitha would be a convenient place to divide the empire, at least in a colloquial sense. This meant taking liberties with the geographical and political situation between the two. Like everything else in the empire, using the Leitha was a hedge. That was because the Austrians nominally controlled Galicia and Bukovina, two provinces which were located northeast of Hungary. The Leitha was as distant from those two provinces as Transylvania was from the Tyrol.

There was also the issue of the Leitha’s length or lack thereof. The river runs for a total of 120 kilometers, nowhere near as long as the internal border where Austrian and Hungarian controlled parts of the empire abutted one another. Perhaps this was a case where the Leitha was the best that anyone could come up with as a dividing line. It just happened to be in the area where German speakers gave way to a majority of Hungarian ones and vice versa. Everything depended on which side of the Leitha they were on. After the compromise of 1867 formed the Dual Monarchy, colloquial expressions arose out of Vienna that were expressive of the way Austrians viewed the empire.

Cisleithania - Austrian ruled lands in red and dark gray/Hungarian ruled lands in light gray

Cisleithania – Austrian ruled lands in red and dark gray/Hungarian ruled lands in light gray (Credit: Wikipedia – Public Domain)

Superiority Complex – A Detrimental Delusion
The Austrian lands were Cisleithania, meaning “on this side of the Leitha.” Conversely, Hungarian lands were Transleithania. Tellingly, the prefix in that term denoted “beyond”. This meant Hungary was the other or the outsider. In other words, it was foreign, obscure and meant to seem lesser. The implication of using Cisleithania was that the Austrian side of the border stood for civilization, refinement and culture. While the Hungarian side, Transleithania was the wild east, a land beyond normal in the minds of the Austrian powers that be. Then again, what did it say that Austrian weakness forced them to bring in the Hungarians as equal partners. The Austrian’s superiority complex was delusional. They needed the Hungarians in order to maintain their status. The Hungarians would have gladly taken complete independence. Being one-half of the Dual Monarchy was the next best thing. More than the Leitha divided Austrians and Hungarians, but setting an internal border there met each other’s needs. As usual, the Austrians came out feeling better about themselves, even if deep down inside they knew it was just a cover for their own weakness.

Today, the Leitha is just another small river and not even that during certain seasons. The river’s greatest claim to notoriety is that it eventually flows into the mighty Danube. It has long since lost its geopolitical raison d’etre.  The Leitha is now lifeblood to farmers and others who live close by it in eastern Austria. The river’s historical resonance vanished along with the empire that once made it famous in the early 20th century. For those few who recall the stature it once held, the Leitha offers a fascinating example of the fluidity of borders, both real and imagined. For the Leitha was a real border to the inhabitants of Lower Austria, especially Vienna, who viewed it as a point of differentiation. It was also an imaginary border, one given definition by a colloquialism that was informed as much by the imagination as facts on the ground. This us and them mentality showed that when it came to Austria-Hungary, the ruling powers were not on the same side. Cisleithania and Transleithania were a subtle expression of a known truth.

A Different Kind of Blue - Transleithania in light and darker blueA Different Kind of Blue - Transleithania in light and darker blue

A Different Kind of Blue – Transleithania in light and darker blue (Credit: Wikipedia – Public Domain)

Bridging A Troubled Relationship – Unified & Divided
Many years ago, the famous American novelist James Michener wrote a work of non-fiction called The Bridge at Andau. The book centered around the story of Hungarians escaping to Austria and the free world during the 1956 Revolution by way of a small footbridge near the Austrian border town of Andau. Perhaps someone in the future will write a book with a similar title about a bridge and town close to the modern Austria-Hungary border. The book could be called Bridge on the Leitha (Bruck an der Leitha). Ostensibly a work of history, the title acting both metaphorical and factual. The “Bridge” on the Leitha would be the Austro-Hungarian Empire which brought two great peoples, Germans and Magyars, together one last time. This imperial experiment lasted for less than a half century, but in that short span of time the Leitha became more than a river, it also became a border which divided and united. A border which today no longer exists except to those who know their history.

An Echo Down Vacant Corridors: The Fortresses at Komárom, Hungary & Komárno, Slovakia

A highlight of the train ride between Budapest and Bratislava is the crossing of the Danube. This catches the attention of many passengers as one of Europe’s most important rivers comes into view. The Danube also marks the dividing line between Hungary and Slovakia, a watery ribbon that historically has both connected and divided the two sides. The links between the two towns can be seen in the close kinship of their names. On the Hungarian side stands Komárom, across the water is the Slovakian town of Komárno. These two settlements may now be a part of two different nations, but they share a common history. This shared past includes a feat of military engineering constructed in the 19th century that superseded the river. The area in and around the two towns contains one of the largest intact 19th century military fortresses in Central Europe. The alert and knowledgeable passenger may even catch fleeting glimpses of these from the comfort of a railcar.

Monostori - largest fort in Central Europe

Monostori – largest fort in Central Europe

A Prison Of Nations – The Habsburgs Guard Against Their Own Empire
Built by the Austrian Habsburgs to guard the Danube, the fortress complex at Komárom and Komárno straddled one of the empire’s most strategic points. The irony was that the fortresses were first built as much to protect against enemies within, as any external foes. The internal threats were the diverse ethnic groups of the Empire that lacked freedom and opportunity. Following the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1848-1849, the Habsburgs decided to ward off any future threats by the creation of forts which could guard against another Hungarian insurgency. This was a case where policy fought the last war rather than the next one. The forts would end up being virtually useless. The long peace that ensued from 1850 until the outbreak of World War I was riven by the rise of ethnic nationalism. The resistance was political rather than martial.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867 through World War I) has been often referred to as “a prison of nations.” This was certainly true. Until the empire collapsed in 1918 it held all or much of what would become Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, as well as constituent parts of Romania, Serbia, Poland and Italy. The revolution from within rather than from without finally caused the empire to disintegrate. This led to the troubled birth of new nations. Gigantic fortifications such as those at Komárom / Komárno were impressive, but did little to solve the Empire’s numerous problems. Yet that did not stop the Austrians from constructing a fortress complex to rival anything found then or now in Europe. These defensive works were part and parcel of the myopic vision that clouded the Empire’s judgment, gargantuan public works projects that signified an affinity for large military fortresses and little else.

Artillery piece at Monostori Fortress

Inside Monostori Fortress – history without war

Keeping Up Appearances – The Great Power Facade
The largest fort in the complex, Monostori, is so expansive that its size is difficult for the mind to comprehend. After making a first-hand visit, I am still in awe of the length and breadth of just this one fort. I walked around at least a hundred large rooms, through vast, yawning spaces in both the interior and exterior, across grass covered grounds that could have swallowed fifty football fields. After four hours of wandering I still was unable to cover all of Monostori. This fort was the kind of place that could easily swallow an entire army. It contained 640 rooms with 25,000 square meters of floor space. The barracks could house up to 8,000 soldiers. Just what these soldiers did other than march endlessly across the vast parade grounds, distract themselves with mind numbing drills and try to look busy was open to the imagination. Perhaps they wandered through the four kilometer (2.5 mile) long tunnel system. It is hard to believe that thousands of soldiers were ever needed to monitor river traffic along the Danube or protect an area that was hundreds of kilometers from an enemy. As for protecting the Empire from its rebellious subjects such as Hungarians, the fort did nothing of the sort. After the Compromise of 1867 which created the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Hungarians made up the majority of troops stationed there.

Monostori Fortress was a pre-World War I example of keeping up appearances and little else. Perhaps the fort’s impregnability made an impression on a few would be attackers, but the Empire’s external enemies were hundreds of kilometers away in Serbia or Russia. The main idea that kept the Empire pouring money into Monostori Fortress was that Austria-Hungary still considered itself a great power, thus it had to act like one. This meant having huge, formidable fortresses that gave the pretense of imperial might. The same could be said for another of the empire’s military complexes, the gigantic Przemysl fortress in Galicia. The Austro-Hungarian Empire did what all modern Empires have done, whether they are in rise or decline, waste large sums of money on a large military industrial complex to keep the peace from real and imagined enemies.

Fort Igmand

Fort Igmand – one of several massive fortresses built by the Austrian Habsburgs

An Exercise In Futility – The Folly Of Empire
Monostori was just one of multiple forts that covered the immediate area. Nearby was the Igmand Fortress, constructed four years after the compromise of 1867. Paradoxically the beginning of a long peace meant more military preparations. The engineer’s must have been delighted. Igmand was noteworthy because it had a clear field of fire for artillery to ward off any attackers.  This artillery was never used in a battle at the fort. It was all just for show or practice. There was also the Csillag Fortress (Star Fortress), yet another work. On the opposite side of the Danube (present day Slovakia), there was yet another large fortress guarding the confluence of the Vah and Danube Rivers. All this construction was for naught. Among the many uses of Monostori after the collapse of Austria-Hungary included a stint as a regimental command center, a deportation point for Roma to concentration camps and ethnic Hungarians forced out of Czechoslovakia. During the Cold War, the Red Army made it the largest ammunition depot in Central Europe. One cavernous room I visited at the fort recalled the Soviet presence. Mannequins sat around a table where they play cards surrounded by a barracks type setup. When I stepped into the room a Soviet military anthem began to sound, eerily echoing through the vacant corridors.

My tour of Monostori was self-guided and went something like this, up one earthwork after another, down and through the bowels of innumerable, drafty rooms, followed by a visit to a museum that exhaustively interpreted every era of the fortress’s history.  Visiting Monostori was more about exercise of a physical rather than mental nature. The place wore me out. The fort’s most enduring quality seems to be the fact that it outlasts everyone who once inhabited or now visits it. I have a feeling that Monostori will still be standing astride the banks of the Danube along with the other forts, for many centuries. They serve as symbols of the Habsburgs misguided and wasteful military policy, the folly of an empire in terminal decline.

The Wrong & Right Side of the Middle – Hungary & Austria from 1867 to the Present

Fertorakos is a small village on the Hungarian side of the country’s border with Austria. It is hard to get much further west in Hungary than here. It is also a place to contemplate why Hungarians have been the lesser partner in their historic relationship with the Austrians. In one sense this is understandable since the Habsburgs ruled over parts or all of Hungary for over three hundred years. This was mainly due to the cataclysmic one-hundred and sixty year Ottoman Turkish occupation of middle and lower Hungary in the 16th and 17th centuries. The relationship between the Hungarians and the Austrians did not begin to change until the latter half of the 19th century. After the Austrians suffered a stinging defeat to Prussia in 1866, they chose to offer the Hungarians an equal partnership. In 1867 the Dual Monarchy was created. Suddenly, the Hungarians were in the ascendant, while the Habsburg led Austrians were just trying to keep the empire afloat.

Austria-Hungary - common coat of arms

Austria-Hungary – common coat of arms

Deals With the Devil – From a Golden Age to World Wars
Over the next 50 years Budapest boomed. It was the fastest growing city in Europe, a hive of economic and cultural activity. Meanwhile, Vienna’s glittering reputation was beginning to fade, beset by the dark forces of radical ideologies and counter-culture. The aristocracy tried to fight off the vicissitudes of mass suffrage, labor movements and democratic socialism. Darker forces lurked on the fringes. There is a reason Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin both spent time in Vienna during 1913. Meanwhile, Hungary became the breadbasket of the Dual-Monarchy, its fertile lands feeding the Empire. Even in smaller, out of the way places, Hungary’s vast natural resources were supporting the Austrians. Vienna, that sparkling showpiece of Central Europe, had two massive construction projects, St. Stephen’s Cathedral and the famed Ringstrasse built from stone quarried in Fertorakos.  As Hungary experienced a belle époque (Golden Age) from 1867 up to the outbreak of World War One, the Austrians watched their power dwindle. The end of the Habsburg’s as a ruling dynasty seemed as though it might not be far away.

Nevertheless, World War One put an end to the short, meteoric ascent of Hungary. History turned again. Two-thirds of historic Hungary’s population and people were taken away due to the provisions of the post-war Treaty of Trianon. Oddly, though the Habsburgs were dethroned and Austrian chauvinism had been a main instigator in starting the war, they got off rather lightly. Austria actually gained territory at the expense of their former imperial partner. The Hungarians must have felt this to be one of the unkindest cuts of all in a treaty that left their kingdom drawn and quartered. Both Austria and Hungary were on the wrong side militarily during the Second World War. At first it seemed the Austrians had received the worse end of the deal, annexed as it was by the Nazis, while the Hungarians actually gained lands in Slovakia and Transylvania.

Fertorakos - an unassuming town that witnessed incredible events in 1989 - Credit: Attila Pellinger

Fertorakos – an unassuming town that witnessed incredible events in 1989 – Credit: Attila Pellinger

A Cold Day In Hell – Hungary from 1945 to 1989
The Hungarians though had made a deal with the devil and in the end they paid by losing nearly their entire army on the Eastern Front. The upshot of all this was a heavy handed Soviet occupation. The Austrians got the same, but theirs turned out to be less than long term. By the 1950’s Austria, through an ambiguous bit of neutrality, was left free to prosper. Meanwhile the Hungarians ended up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. A geographical situation where they were considered part of Eastern Europe and thus under the Soviet sphere of influence would decide Hungary’s fate for decades to come. Hungary became a buffer nation. As part of the Warsaw Pact, like Czechoslovakia and Poland further north, they were used to keep NATO and the west far away from the borders of the Soviet Union.

One might think that Fertorakos would have been all but forgotten during the Cold War. Ideological power struggles and geo-political machinations would seem to have little to do with such a sleepy place. Unfortunately, Fertorakos found itself as a border village in a border nation. It was a place where east met west, both physically and politically. No longer was Fertorakos part of the centuries old drama of Austria versus Hungary or Austria-Hungary. Now the stage had been reset for communist versus capitalist, with Fertorakos stuck on the wrong side of the middle.  Lake Ferto, just a few minutes from the town center, became a playground for communist elites. This new governing class was the only ones allowed exclusive use of the strand. Thus the “representatives of the people” had their own private holiday resort within site of the decadent west.

Pan-European Picnic Monument by Gabriella Von Habsburg - Credit: Tamas Kiss

Pan-European Picnic Monument by Gabriella Von Habsburg – Credit: Tamas Kiss

A Historic Picnic & the Short Walk to Freedom
All that changed in 1989 due to an event so historically sublime, it could have scarcely been imagined. By the middle of 1989 communism was in trouble all across Eastern Europe. Restless populations yearning for freedom were beginning to take matters into their own hands. In Hungary, reformers had gained control of the government. The year before Janos Kadar, who had ruled the country for thirty-two years, was forced into retirement. In June 1989, the barbed wire that for decades had cordoned Hungary off from Austria was severed. Then in the strangest of circumstances the situation really took a quixotic turn. In August, activists in Hungary planned the Pan European Picnic on the Hungarian-Austrian border. This was to symbolize the two peoples coming together. In one of history’s ironic twists, Otto Van Habsburg who was the heir to the defunct Habsburg throne, helped conceive the idea.  Both countries agreed to open the border gate between the two nations for three hours on August 19th. The border post was about 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) from Fertorakos.

What happened next was nothing less than historic. Hundreds of East Germans, who had learned about the event from flyers, arrived on August 19th not for the picnic, but to cross the border. The Hungarian guards allowed them to pass freely and enter Austria. This was just the start. From that point onward, there was no going back. A little more than three weeks later, on September 11th, the border was opened between Hungary and Austria for good. In the following months, 70,000 people headed west to gain their freedom.

Border breakthrough Memorial - Credit: Fekist

Border breakthrough Memorial – Credit: Fekist

Full Circle – Rulers & Liberators
Today, at the entrance to the Fertorakos cave theater – part of the same quarry complex that provided the stone which helped build Vienna – stand monuments, symbolizing a cross and barbed wire. These were created by Gabriella Von Habsburg, the daughter of Otto. Now the Austrian Habsburg dynasty has come full circle, from ruling over much of Central and Eastern Europe to celebrating its liberation. And it was their old friend and foe the Hungarians who helped make this possible. Hungary is not a lesser partner in its historic relationship with Austria. It is an equal and freedom loving one.

Defeating The Defeated: The Martyrs of Arad In Hungarian History

The city of Arad stands close to the Romanian/Hungarian border, in the western extremity of Romania. It is only a handful of miles across the border to Hungary. Historically the city was part of the Kingdom of Hungary, but was given to Romania by the post-World War I Treaty of Trianon whereby Hungary lost nearly two-thirds of its population and over seventy percent of its land base. Many of the Hungarian people who had called this city astride the Mures River their home for generations were forced to flee westward after the treaty was signed, never to return. They not only left behind livelihoods, but also memories of one of the most crucial and bitter moments in modern Hungarian history. There is a reason that the mere mention of Arad evokes feelings of patriotic fervor among Hungarians to this very day. To Hungarians the city’s name is a pseudonym for martyrdom.

Execution of the Martyrs of Arad - Painting by János Thorma.

Execution of the Martyrs of Arad – Painting by János Thorma.

A Harsh Statement – Executing Rebellion In Arad
In 1848 the Hungarians rose up in revolt against the Austrian Habsburgs. At first they met with success. It looked as though they just might finally throw off the Austrian yoke and win independence. The Hungarian victories included the taking of the Arad fortress during the summer of 1849. They then proceeded to make Arad the headquarters for their rebellion. Meanwhile, the Austrians had to call for assistance from their ally Russia. The weight of numbers would prove telling. The Austrians with military support from Russia were able to put down the revolt. The Hungarian military leadership actually surrendered to the Russians, but then dutifully handed them over to the Austrians. Following surrender, the Austrians decided to show no mercy.

Leniency was not something the Habsburgs could afford at this point. Their weakness had been exposed by the Hungarian Revolution. A variety of different ethnic groups numbering in the tens of millions outnumbered the ethnic Germans of the empire. A harsh statement would have to be made or each ethnic group just might rise up as the Hungarians had and demand independence. On October 6th the execution was carried out. Adding insult to injury, the generals were hanged, which was considered to be one of the most humiliating forms of execution.

Legend has it that the Austrian military leadership was drinking beer while the execution took place. Following the ultimate moment they toasted and clinked their glasses together. Whether this is true or not has never been confirmed. Hungarians though definitely believed it. They vowed to not clink their glasses together after a toast for the next 150 years. How they arrived at this number of years is unknown. Even today, fifteen years past the sunset date of that historic vow, Hungarians still considered it to be exceedingly bad manners to clink beer glasses together following a toast. This “Austrian” tradition remains taboo.

The 13 Martyrs of Arad - Lithography by Miklós Barabás

The 13 Martyrs of Arad – Lithography by Miklós Barabás

A Historical Boomerang Effect – The Dual Monarchy
Legends aside, the reality was that the Austrians had sent a message to the Hungarians along with the other ethnic groups of the empire. Rebellion was to be dealt with in the harshest manner possible. Following the executions, the Austrians enacted martial law in Hungary to quell any lasting resistance to their rule. Hungary was now under the iron fist of Austria for the next eighteen years. During this time the Hungarian populace passively resisted Austrian rule. Support for the Habsburg’s waned.

After the Austrians lost the Austro-Prussian War in 1866, they had little choice but to enact a compromise with Hungary to bolster their tottering empire. In 1867 the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary was created whereby Hungary was allowed almost complete autonomy. The compromise called for a very loose union. The two nations would only have common affairs in defense, foreign affairs and budget. Strangely enough, Emperor Franz Joseph who had imposed such a harsh peace on Hungary two decades before would now be crowned the King of Hungary. This was a historical boomerang.

Memorial to the 13 Martyrs in Arad

Memorial to the 13 Martyrs in Arad

Star Crossed – Arad & the Hungarian Historical Narrative
The incident at Arad is one of innumerable ill-fated events in Hungary’s star crossed history. The Hungarians have a long memory of such historical calamities. Arad fits a historical narrative of grasping defeat from the jaws of victory. A history of an almost that turned out to be a not quite good enough. The loss at Arad is one of many that have formed the Hungarian character. The will to overcome these defeats also has shaped the nation’s outlook. Once Hungarians are released from their aspirations and the inevitable let down has occurred, they seem to thrive. This is what happened in the later aftermath of the failed Hungarian Revolution. First they had to taste the bitterness of defeat before they could arrive at a compromise that offered the fruits of a hard won victory. It is such a pity that the martyrs of Arad would not live to experience that triumph.


War For The Unconscious – The Memory of World War I In Hungarian Villages

Villages in Hungary are strikingly similar. There are usually several blocks of houses in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors. The tallest structure is almost always a church with its steeple visible from just beyond the village limits. Behind wooden gates large dogs bark at the slightest hint of movement. Transport around the village is usually done with a bicycle or on foot rather than by car. The streets and sidewalks are cracked, but still walkable. And close to the center, there is almost always a four sided monument with a soldier atop it. These memorials honor those soldiers killed in the First World War serving in the Hungarian Landwehr (Royal Hungarian Honved) fighting for the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

A Frightening Lethality – The Great War & Hungary
The monuments are a stark reminder of the toll that the war took on Hungary. For example, in Fertod a village of no more than 200 inhabitants, there are 36 names listed on the monument to the “Great War.” Some might take offense to the word “Great” to describe the war. That was the name given to it because these monuments were installed in the 1920’s and 30’s before there was a Second World War. The war may have been “Great” for the victors, but it was the opposite of that for those who ended up on the losing side. It is hard to overstate the unmitigated disaster World War I was for Hungary.

Villages such as Fertod act as a measuring stick for the horrific loss of life that occurred in Hungary because of the war. The village was never much bigger than its present size. Thus the frightening lethality of the war and the exacting toll it took upon the community can be extrapolated by dividing the number of names on the monument from the population of the village. If thirty six men died at the front, that means every fourth family in Fertod lost a son, brother or husband. Everyone in the village would have personally known multiple men who died fighting at the front.

Weather worn, but still standing - World War I Monument in the eastern Hungarian village of Tiszadob

Weather worn, but still standing – World War I Monument in the eastern Hungarian village of Tiszadob

Last Testament – Hungarian Villages & the Memory of World War I
Consciousness for those Hungarian soldiers killed in the conflict still survives today, if barely. This happens most notably through the names inscribed on the Great War Monuments which can be found in almost every Hungarian town and village. The slabs of carved and sculptured stone are often topped with a soldier rushing towards an invisible foe. Some monuments show ladies with their heads bowed in mourning, silently grieving for the lost sons, brothers, fathers and husbands. These monuments are the last testaments to those who gave their lives. They are the only thing left standing between grief and oblivion when it comes to historical memory of the common Honved soldier’s sacrifice during the war.

Often military history is viewed through the prism of “great men” or “decisive battles.” But what courage could “great men” have possessed that the average Honved soldier did not? On a personal level, what implications of a “decisive battle” can compete with the loss of a loved one? Were the upheavals in Hungary after World War I caused by anonymous social and economic forces or because good men died fighting for empire, honor and homeland? By the latter part of 1918 the ranks of men who could have defended Hungary against their gathering enemies had been decisively thinned.

Hungarian soldier on the Italian Front during World War I

Hungarian soldier on the Italian Front during World War I

War on the the Unconscious – Remembering World War I in Hungary
To a foreigner, all those monuments to Honved soldiers lost in the First World War come as a shock. World War II dominates historical discussions of the 20th century. Hitler, the Holocaust, Pearl Harbor, D-Day, the Battle of Berlin and Hiroshima are all common topics in history classes worldwide. The First World War has become a forgotten afterthought or at best, is given a handful of pages in a history textbook. The monuments in Hungary say something quite different. The centrality of the war in the history of modern Hungary cannot be overstated. In those village squares, with their endless lists of Nagys and Vargas, Baloghs and Banffys, it seems the war was lost over many years, in many battles, with thousands upon thousands suffering. Their names are both known and unknown, but even the known are so numerous as to render them numbingly faceless. The final result was not decided by brilliant maneuvers or heroic leadership, but by the sheer weight of numbers. By this reckoning Hungary nearly lost it all. The monuments tell this story in row upon etched row of names.

In the wake of this overwhelming loss is it any wonder that Hungary was thrown into chaos. Radical forces extolling the virtues of communism, fascism and even royalism all reared their ugly heads in a Pandora’s Box of competing ideologies. When the armies of these rival movements appeared, all those men who could have defended their villages had long since perished in burned out fortresses such as Przemysl, disappeared into the marshes of Galicia, froze to death in the snowy passes of the Carpathians, shattered by splintering stone on the rocky ledges of the Italian Alps or slowly succumbed in the squalor that of prisoner of war camps on the Russian steppes. In those forlorn locales, blood soaked the soil and consecrated the ground with human stains that would soon disappear, much like the ideals of honor, glory and heroism had on the battlefield.

World War I propaganda poster for the Hungarian Army

World War I propaganda poster for the Hungarian Army

One Life At A Time
Meanwhile back in Hungary all that remained were empty beds, unplowed fields and a deep, penetrating grief. An all-consuming silence was pervasive in the years that followed. Those villagers left behind passed weeks, months and years without end and without loved ones. And at dates that are now lost to history, the monuments were dedicated as a reminder of those who vanished forever at the front. These monuments are now all that is left in those quiet little towns and villages. Places where the losses of a nation can still be counted one life at a time.


“It Is Nothing”: The Exhibit on the Archduke’s Assassination As Seen In Vienna

In the Landstraße District of Vienna, stands the world’s oldest military history museum, the Heeresgeschichtliches (Museum of Military Museum). The museum’s exhibits focus on Austrian military exploits throughout the centuries. Among the prominent events highlighted are the numerous martial successes of the Habsburgs, one of the great ruling families in European History. Austria and the Habsburgs have a symbiotic relationship, the success and splendor of the latter, influencing that of the former right up to the present day. Yet in the early 20th ,the Habsburgs passed into history. Their fall came in both shocking and sudden fashion. In the space of just four years, the length of World War I, the empire completely disintegrated. First came defeat on the battlefield, followed by unrest and revolt at home. By the end of the war, the Habsburgs and their centuries old monarchy had vanished.

The Heeresgeschichtliches (Museum of Military History) in Vienna

The Heeresgeschichtliches – Museum of Military History in Vienna is located in the city’s former arsenal

The Decline & Fall of the Austrian’s Empire – Revolution, Compromise & Ossification
In truth, decline had been taking place for nearly a century prior to the war. Growing tensions caused by the forces of socialism and nationalism during the 19th century had to be constantly suppressed. Defeat in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 was a harbinger of the growing power of a soon to be unified Germany. Fear grew, both rational and reasonable, that Austria would be swallowed up by the German Empire. To stave off oblivion the Austrians created an unwieldy alliance with the Hungarians. The upshot of this was a political entity known as the Dual Monarchy (Austro-Hungarian Empire). This helped to stabilize the situation for almost half a century, but at the same time proved to be a constant source of irritation.

The Hungarians demanded almost complete independence. In areas where the two entities were supposed to coordinate, such as Foreign Affairs, disagreements were rife. There were also justifiable concerns about the growth of nationalism among the millions of minorities spread throughout the empire. The Italians of the Tyrol looked to Italy, the Romanians of Transylvania to Romania, the Serbs to Russia and so on. The empire was riven with internal contradictions. Atop it all sat Emperor Franz Josef, a man who would rule for sixty-eight years of revolution, compromise and ossification. Telling the story of a prolonged period of upheaval and transformation via museum exhibits is difficult at best. Perhaps that is why the essence of the fall of the House of Habsburg, Austria-Hungary and the end of old Europe really comes down to one exhibit at the Heeresgeschichtliches. Known as the Sarajevo exhibit, it showcases the residue from the seminal event which changed Austria, the Habsburgs and Europe forever.

1911 Graf & Stift Double Phaeton automobile which the Archduke and his wife were travelling in when they were murdered in Sarajevo

1911 Graf & Stift Double Phaeton automobile which the Archduke and his wife were travelling in when they were murdered in Sarajevo (Credit: Heeresgeschichtliches)


Assassination – Politics By Other Means
The largest and most noticeable item on display is an automobile. This was the car in which the Archduke Franz Ferdinand (heir to the Habsburg throne) traveled through Sarajevo with his wife Sophie on Sunday, June 28, 1914. Easily recognizable is the folded back, convertible cover of the 1911 Graf & Stift Double Phaeton automobile. It was at precisely ten minutes past ten o’clock in the morning that a bomb thrown by a would be assassin deflected off the convertible cover. It injured travelers in another vehicle that was part of the Archduke’s entourage. Despite this, the Archduke insisted that the visit continue. He was dutifully taken to the town hall for a reception. Reflecting on this is bound to make the viewer wonder if arrogance, a quality which Franz Ferdinand was known to have in abundance, ended up costing him his life.

Perhaps this not only reflects the arrogance of Franz Ferdinand, but the attitude of the aristocratic order of old Europe as well. The governing elites still had a sense of invulnerability, despite numerous successful assassinations that had occurred across Europe over the past twenty years. Assassination, like war, was politics by another means. The marginalized of the Empire felt that this was the only way real change could be effected. Franz Ferdinand, an elite in every way imaginable, was an extreme example of the will to never change or recognize the obvious, even when it appeared in deadly forms. After the reception, the Archduke and his wife were once again traveling back through Sarajevo, when due to a mix-up, the chauffeur took a wrong turn and ended up stalling the car on a side street. It was then that the assassin, a Bosnian Serb by the name of Gavrilo Princip, pulled out a semi-automatic pistol. From just one and a half meters away he fired two shots. The Archduke was hit in the jugular vein, while his wife was shot in the abdomen.

Pistol used by Gavrilo Princip to murder the Archduke and his wife (Credit: Heeresegeschichtliches)

Fabriue Nationale model 1910 used by Gavrilo Princip to murder the Archduke and his wife (Credit: Heeresgeschichtliches)

The assassin’s pistol, a Fabrique Nationale model 1910, is on display at the museum. It is incredibly humbling to actually see the real weapon. The gun produced the first two shots of what would become a worldwide conflagration that ended up taking the lives of at least ten million people. The exhibit contains several photos of the assassins (including accomplices) along with their weapons. The contrast between the assassins and the royal family is brought home by the photos in close proximity to one another. Here is the scruffy Princip, eyes gazing back at the camera with a fearful, vacant perplexity. Nearby, an image of the royal family shows them as refined and well to do. There could hardly be a greater contrast. Franz Ferdinand and Sophie only met Princip in that one hair trigger moment, but due to that moment they have inextricably linked, forever.

The uniform worn by Archduke Franz Ferdinand when he was assassinated in Sarajevo

The uniform worn by Archduke Franz Ferdinand when he was assassinated in Sarajevo (Credit: Heeresgeschichtliches)

All & Nothing – Franz Ferdinand’s Famous Last Words
Another display case holds the uniform worn by the archduke on that fateful day. A hole is visible just below the collar where the bullet’s entry occurred. The front of the uniform still displays Franz Ferdinand’s blood stains, which have turned a dirty brown over the years. In a final coup of macabre grace, a chaise lounge is part of the exhibit. It is from the governor’s residence in Sarajevo. On this lounge the Archduke lay, still alive, yet barely breathing. Ten minutes after Sophie died, Franz Ferdinand is said to have uttered, “Sophie, Sophie! Don’t die! Live for our children.” Then he repeated “It is nothing” over and over again.

Those were his final words. The exhibit has the power to transport the viewer beyond the museum, to somewhere deep in the historical consciousness. A place where Franz Ferdinand’s final words, “It is nothing” echo across space and time. Those words have turned into a horrific paradox. They turned out to be quite the opposite of what occurred in the aftermath of the assassination. “It is nothing” was really the beginning of a final endgame for the Habsburgs.

There is nothing quite like the Sarajevo exhibit at the Heeresgeschichtliches. Thousands of artifacts and wonderfully informative displays may tell of the story of the Habsburgs and Austria’s military exploits and defeats, but they pale in comparison to the items showcased from that one day in Sarajevo. The artifacts in the Sarajevo exhibit have the ability to transport the visitor beyond walls and words, beyond facts and dates. Indeed, they speak of a final destiny that defeated an empire and a way of life.


Failure to Assimilate: Count Apponyi & the Fate of Historic Hungary at the Paris Peace Conference

At 2:30 p.m. on January 16, 1920 at the Quai D’Orsay in Paris, Count Albert Apponyi prepared to give a verbal presentation of the Hungarian position on the peace terms submitted to Hungary by the Allied powers. The terms of the treaty to be imposed on Hungary were shocking in the extreme. If there were no alterations, the Kingdom of Hungary would lose over two-thirds of its land base and population. Even worse, one-third of the Kingdom’s ethnic Hungarian population would end up under foreign rule. The redrawn borders would sever ancestral homelands. Such historic territories as Transylvania (Erdely in Hungarian) and Upper Hungary (Felvidek) would be taken away. The rulers were on the verge of becoming the ruled.

Count Albert Apponyi - man of letters & proponent of Magyarization

Count Albert Apponyi – man of letters & proponent of Magyarization

Speaking In Tongues – Historic Hungary & The Nationalities
Apponyi must have been unsettled by the historically twisted position he found himself in. As Minister of Education for the Hungarian Kingdom thirteen years before, he had been one of the main proponents of what became known as the Apponyi Laws. These laws required that instruction in reading, writing and arithmetic for students could only be given in Hungarian. This had been the ultimate outcome of a process known as Magyarization, in which ethnic subjects of the Kingdom – whether Romanian, Slovak, German, Serb, Slovene, Croat, Rusyn or Jew – were to be educated socially and culturally in Hungarian. They were to be transformed from Slav, Teuton and Latin into loyal Magyar subjects in the Hungarian half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Count Albert Apponyi had been born into one of the most ancient and noble families in Hungary. He was uniquely qualified for the role he was about to play in Paris. He was extremely accomplished in politics and literature. A man of vast intellectual gifts, over the final twenty-two years of his life he would be nominated no less than five times for the Nobel Prize. A successful career in letters saw him pen eleven books. These focused mainly on politics and philosophy. A brilliant orator, fluent in six languages, his speech at the Quai d’Orsay was to be given first in English, followed by French and Italian. None of these three languages were his mother tongue. That is revealing.

Historic Land Grab – The Ethnic Backlash
Apponyi’s first language was Hungarian. The overriding majority of those present on that mid-winter’s day would have scarcely understood a word of Hungarian. The fact was that those who sat in judgment of Hungary knew very little about it. What mattered was that it had ended up on the losing side of the Great War as one-half of the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire. Most importantly, the lands of historic Hungary contained a majority of ethnic minorities.

This transformation, which had been greatly resisted by the subject peoples, had been halted by the First World War. Now these same ethnic groups had thrown off the yoke of servitude and were in the process of either creating new nation-states or expanding their existing borders at the expense of historic Hungary. Meanwhile the Hungarians lay defeated, torn asunder by internal tumult as rival democratic socialist, communist and nationalist forces took control of a rapidly dwindling homeland. Parts of the nation were occupied by Romanian, Czechoslovak and Serb forces. A historic land grab was in progress.

Treaty of Trianon - this map shows the vast consequences of the Paris Peace Settlement which dismembered Historic Hungary

Treaty of Trianon – this map shows the vast consequences of the Paris Peace Settlement which dismembered Historic Hungary

The Last Bastion of Defense
Count Apponyi’s words would be the last bastion of defense for Historic Hungary. Nothing less than the Magyar homeland was at stake. In accented English he began to speak:

In the first place we cannot conceal our astonishment at the extreme severity of the conditions of the peace. This astonishment can easily be explained. The conditions of the peace treaties contracted with the other belligerent nations, with Germany, Austria and Bulgaria were certainly also severe. But not one of these contained such significant territorial changes inevitably affecting the national life, as those we are called upon to accept.

You, Gentleman, whom victory has placed in this tribunal, you have pronounced guilty your former enemies, the Central Powers, and have decreed that the burden of the war should be cast upon those responsible for it. So be it in that case, I think, in dividing the burden, the measure of guilt should decide the proportion. Hungary being punished by the most severe conditions, threatening her very existence, one would think that of all nations she was guiltiest.

…the peoples right of self-determination should be considered. A statement might be hazarded as to the rights of minorities being more effectually assured on the territories of the new states than they were in Hungary.

I do not, on this occasion, wish to plead the case brought against Hungary relative to the alleged oppression of the non-Hungarian races. I will confine my words to declaring myself well pleased should our Hungarian brethern on the territories torn from our country enjoy the same rights and facilities as the non-Hungarian citizens of Hungary enjoyed.

Hungary was in possession of every condition of organic unity with the exception of one: racial unity. But the states to be built up on the ruins of Hungary – according to the terms of the Treaty – will also lack racial unity, the one condition of unity missing in Hungary – nor, may I add, will they possess any other.

Count Apponyi - in his later years he represented Hungary at the Paris Peace Conference, but failed to get the peace terms changed

Count Apponyi – in his later years he represented Hungary at the Paris Peace Conference, but failed to get the peace terms changed

Actions Versus Words – A Failure To Assimilate
Apponyi’s oration stated the Hungarian position precisely while at the same time exposing its fatal flaws. The ethnic minorities of Hungary had been given extremely limited rights when it came to the use of their mother tongue. The basic right they had been given: was to become Hungarians. This was something they would never be, because this was something they never wanted to begin with. Even after decades of forced Magyarization, they still spoke their own languages, kept their own customs and obeyed their historic traditions. The failure to assimilate these minorities was fatal to Historic Hungary.

Apponyi as the former minister of Education surely understood all this very well. He had tried – along with many of his countrymen- to make Hungarians out of people who were not. His speech in defense of historic Hungary was in vain. The terms of the Paris Peace for Hungary went unchanged. They would be imposed later that same year. It was not so much that Apponyi had failed that day in Paris, it was more that he had failed with his education policies many years before. His actions had already spoken and they were much more convincing than his words.

Dead Reckoning – June 28, 1914: The Great War’s Legacy 100 Years Later

On Saturday, June 28, 2014, the 100th Anniversary of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the event which sparked World War One, will be commemorated in Sarajevo. The commemoration will be solemn and relatively low key. Among other things, the Vienna Philharmonic is scheduled to perform a concert. There are a few other events on tap, but the overall tone for the anniversary is low key and respectful. This is only proper. After all, this was the moment when the 20th century changed forever and many believe was sent on its violent trajectory.

An Italian newspaper drawing depicting Gavrilo Princip killing Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo

An Italian newspaper drawing depicting Gavrilo Princip killing Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo

Improbabilities, Accidents & Happenstance
The assassination involved a series of ambiguous and troubled historical characters. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand was not well liked or regarded by the citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, especially the elite. The fact that he was murdered gives some idea of the feelings of the empire’s enemies towards the Archduke. As for the assassin, Gavrilo Princip was an outcast, a man who lived on the very fringes of society. His act was neither glorious nor heroic. It was the result of a series of improbabilities, accidents and happenstance. Despite this, the assassination turned out to be a world historical event.

Yet it is what followed in the wake of the assassination rather than the event itself, which makes it of long lasting historical significance.  Four years of total war which ended with millions dead and wounded, along with a radical realignment of the political map of Europe flowed from the assassination. It is difficult to imagine how different Europe was before that event. Monarchies and empires ruled most of the continent including Bosnia. Freedom and representative government promoted the interests of the elite rather than a majority of the population. All of that either came to an end or underwent radical change. The world before the assassination vanished forever.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand & his wife Sophie at funeral ceremony

Archduke Franz Ferdinand & his wife Sophie at funeral ceremony

Coming to Terms – What Did They Fight For? What Did They Die For?
Following the commemoration in Sarajevo, expect much soul searching in France, Britain, Russia and Germany as they try to come to grips with the legacy of the Great War. For France, the Great War is a source of national pride, an honorable sacrifice to save their country from German militarism. Meanwhile in Britain, the war brings to mind images of needless slaughter, tragic heroism and victory at a cost that was indistinguishable from defeat. The Germans are still reckoning with causation and blame. Was the war really their fault? Should they bear the greatest burden of the blame? How do they honor their soldiers, without honoring militarism as well? Like so much of Germany’s ill-fated 20th century history, the questions are difficult and the answers are at best elusive, at worst nebulous. As for Russia, thoughts of the war are inseparable from those of the Revolution it led to. Russia has never come clean with its people about the truth of what occurred, the Soviet Union rewrote history to promote Bolshevism rather than honor the great courage and sacrifice of the peasant soldier. Lost in the Soviet version of the war was not only the truth, but also respect for the millions who died for what both then and now seems no good reason at all.

Lost amid these reckonings are the two principle polities whose enmity brought the world to arms. One, Austria-Hungary no longer exists, while the other, Serbia was synonymous throughout the 20th century with ethnic war and nationalism. They will both be referred to in Sarajevo, but following the commemoration they will almost certainly fade into the background. This will be a repeat of what happened during the Great War. The Austro-Hungarian Army fired the inaugural shots of World War I near Belgrade almost exactly a month to the day from when the assassination took place. After the starting point though, it seems these adversaries disappeared. This probably has to do with the fact that they were both losers in the war, even if the Serbs paradoxically managed to end up on the winning side. The Austro-Hungarian Army’s long awaited invasion of Serbia ended in defeat. Less than six months after the war had begun, the empire and its army were reeling. In the coming year, it would be reinforced and subsumed by the German Army. This would lead to victory for the Austro-Hungarians in Serbia, but it hardly mattered. This was a pyrrhic victory.

Serbian army in World War I - retreating into oblivion

Serbian army in World War I – retreating into oblivion

Defeat, Disillusionment & Disaster – The Great War 100 Years Later
When the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was murdered in Sarajevo, it was the beginning of the end for Austria-Hungary. In that way Princip’s action had been a success, but it brought Serbia so much misery, that it is hard to see how it was a victory.  The Serbs lost almost a fifth of their entire population during the war. That means about one in every five Serbs was dead by the end of the conflict. No country suffered a greater proportion of losses to its population.  What did the Serbs have to show for their suffering and sacrifice at war’s end? They ended up on the victorious side and led the states that would form Yugoslavia, but any gains they made were lost again during World War II, regained in its aftermath and finally lost in the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990’s. The 20th century was not kind to Serbia. They could never quite achieve a Greater Serbia and the next best thing, Yugoslavia collapsed as well. For the Serbs, the Great War much like their entire 20th century history was filled with disappointment.

That word, disappointment may best explain the legacy of the Great War for all the major combatants. None of the nations and empires that were involved got what they wanted or expected. The war brought varying degrees of defeat, disillusionment and disaster to all involved. Perhaps that is why the commemoration in Sarajevo will be such a solemn affair.  It was the beginning of the end for one world and the start of something new and more horrible for the next one.

A Maze of Imagination: The Hungarian Parliament Building

There is hardly a more fantastical structure in the whole of Europe than the Hungarian Parliament Building in Budapest. Sitting astride the Danube, on the Pest side of the river, this architectural wonder is an eclectically astonishing mix of neos: Gothicism, Medievalism, Renaissance and Baroque. Viewed from the Buda embankment, it looks as though it is literally floating on the slate gray river waters of the Danube. When the sky is blue and the sun is shining bright, the building’s reflection unfurls upon the ripples of the river, a shimmering image, sparkling in lustrous splendor. If Disney’s Magic Kingdom was ever to have a stone and mortar counterpart, than surely this must be it.  The building looks as though it is out of a fantasy, a reimagining of grandeur on a scale that can be interpreted as confident, prideful and chauvinistic. It is a symbol of both independence and rebelliousness, infused as much by emotion as symbolism. More than anything, it stands as a singular reflection of the people for whom it was built.

A Maze of Imagination - the Hungarian Parliament

A Maze of Imagination – the Hungarian Parliament

A Transformative Optimism – The Building of Budapest
By the early 1880’s Budapest was in the throes of a transformative belle époque. The trigger for this golden age had taken place a decade and a half earlier. A compromise with the Austrians in 1867 led to the creation of the Dual Monarchy. The emperor of Austria was also crowned as the King of Hungary. At the same time, Hungary was offered virtual independence. One result of the compromise was that Hungarians were allowed their own parliament to practice self-rule.  In 1873, the three cities of Buda, Obuda (Old Buda) and Pest were consolidated into one. From this agglomeration came the city of Budapest. Soon it was the fastest growing metropolitan area in the whole of Europe. People poured in from the countryside, leaving the landed estates behind, while looking to take advantage of the industrial revolution.

The city was literally bursting at the seams with economic activity. Hungary was now an equal part of an empire and virtually independent. The Magyar people, having been liberated from what they believed were centuries of oppression by foreign interlopers, cultivated an economic and cultural renaissance. Much of the newly created wealth went into architectural projects. Banks, universities, market halls, churches and a grand basilica rose from the flatlands of Pest. These constructions were the result of a tremendous optimism. The Magyar nation was ascendant. What followed would be the most optimistic construction project in Hungarian history, a brand new Parliament Building.

Crowning acheivement - A Renaissance dome under siege by Neo-Gothicism (Credit: Alex Proimos)

Crowning acheivement – A Renaissance dome under siege by Neo-Gothicism (Credit: Alex Proimos)

Medievalism Without Reason – A Parliament For the Ages
A contest was put on to see who could create the best design. The competition was fierce. Among the runners-up was Alajos Hauszmann, the famed architect who had designed numerous palaces and would go on to lead the renovation of Buda Castle. All was not lost for Hauszmann. For his entry in the competition would become the Ministry of Justice. This building, along with another runner-up which would become the Ministry of Agriculture, occupied positions directly across from the new Parliament. While each of these might be called stately and grand, they were dwarfed in size, scope and scale by the winning entry from architect Imre Steindl. One critic in the late 19th century termed the prize winning creation, “medievalism without reason.” Some of its stylistic elements certainly seemed to recall the Middle Ages, yet more than anything it redefined architectural possibility. It showcased a broad array of styles placed adjacent or piled on top of one another. For instance, the renaissance dome was topped with a gothic spire. It was a little bit of everything and a whole new thing. It was a building both of the ages and for the ages.

The style was both elegant and grandiose. Its size was otherworldly. This became readily apparent to those who visited the interior. The place seemed endless and unknowable even to those whose job brought them to work within its confines. There were no less than 691 rooms, a third of which were offices (big government was around in the 19th century as well).  The main entrance led to the first of 29 staircases, so many in fact that if stretched end on end they would cover twelve miles. Public officials could enter through 27 gates, use up to 13 elevators and relax in one of ten courtyards. It took over two decades to finish construction. It was finally completed eight years after it was dedicated. The architect, Steindl, went blind and died before it was finished. This hardly mattered, since his vision had little to do with sight and everything to do with imagination.

The Grand Staircase - the path to splendor

The Grand Staircase – the path to splendor

The Art of Possibility – A Building and Its People
Beyond the splendor, the building is, as it was at the time, really about a reverence for the past. It was everything Hungary had been. It looked back at various golden ages in Hungarian history. Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture were all inspirations. On the walls facing the Danube every former ruler of the Kingdom of Hungary, leader of Transylvania and famous Magyar military figures was sculpted in stone. On and on it goes. The message is clear. Hungary and Hungarians represent greatness, it is the architecture of exuberant nationalism.

The building may have been officially finished in 1902, but it never really will be complete. It seems to be in a constant of becoming. Renovations have occurred throughout its history and there are, few if any times that it can be viewed without intrusive scaffolding. In this way, it mirrors the Hungarian nation, which is still a work in progress, never quite complete. The building is reflective of the people it was built for. Magnificently seductive, bursting with creativity and filled with a fierce, energetic pride, it is Hungary and the Hungarians, a nation and a people redefining the art of possibility.

Passion, Levity & Treason – Alfred Redl & the Betrayal of Austria-Hungary

“Passion and levity have destroyed me. Pray for me. I pay with my life for my sins. Alfred…” – Suicide Note of Alfred Redl, Chief of Staff Eight Army Corps, Austro-Hungarian Royal Army

In those two sentences and eighteen words, Alfred Redl concisely summed up his own demise. The above words were the last of a man who rose from poverty in that prototypically backward Austria-Hungarian province of Galicia to the very height of power. The brilliant career of a man known for his extraordinary work ethic, innovation and charm was shattered an hour after midnight on May 25, 1913 in Vienna. The end may have been quick, but the demise had been coming on for many years. It had been a matter of if, not when, Redl would be “discovered” as the man who was selling the Austro-Hungarian Royal Army’s most sensitive military secrets to the Russians.

The Price Of Love & Vanity
Redl’s short note was a fabulously tragic explanation of why? His guilt was so vast, his fall so dramatic that it would not have done for him to have given a drawn out explanation. The details of his actions were left to the empire he had betrayed to work out. In that moment before his death, he gave them only what he wanted them to know, just like he always had in life. He could not control what would be known or unknown after his suicide. That was left to his fellow officers. Later they would unearth his secrets, countering his counter-intelligence. Secrets he left behind were to be found in his luxurious apartment in Prague. Pink leather whips, pornographic photos with snakeskin frames showing fellow officers involved in acts considered at the time to be criminal. Why they, including Redl, were even dressed in women’s clothing and wore cosmetics.

These were the secrets he had hidden from his colleagues for over a decade. Yet his vanity and excess had been in full view. How could they not have noticed? Redl had so often been accompanied by his “nephew.” This false relation was a dashing, young, Czech calvary officer, Stefan Hromadka. He had been a mere teenager of fourteen when they first met. Hromadka became Redl’s lover and the man whom he would lavish with affection and most importantly, luxurious gifts. Covering his fingers with diamonds, purchasing for him a mansion in Prague and supplying a Daimler convertible, Redl bought Hromadka’s love. The price for this romance and so many others was treason. He sold the Empire out to the Russians. They had first confronted him and threatened to expose his scandalous behavior unless he secretly worked for them. Redl became their man in Vienna.

Alfred Redl - arch traitor

Alfred Redl – arch traitor

The Deadliest Secrets
As head of first counter-intelligence and then intelligence for the Monarchy, Redl was uniquely positioned to sell out the spies and secrets he managed. His treason, like the payments he received, was enormous. The mobilization plans for the coming war with Serbia were given to the Russians. They passed them on to their allies. When the World War began, the Serbs were prepared. Redl’s influence on the course of the Empire was profound, it outlasted even him. The Empire and its Royal Army retrospectively deplored Redl’s homosexuality, was puzzled by his coarse vanity, sickened by his deadly duplicity. It would all come much too late, after the fact. And what were facts in a man who would betray anyone and everything, including himself. This was Alfred Redl, a man who charmed everyone into trust. He had used his cleverness to carry out the most nefarious of activities.

How could he have done it? They thought they knew him, but he knew them much better. After all, he was the one whose innovative ideas to collect intelligence helped preserve (and destroy) the Empire. He bugged phone and wireless conversations, dusted for fingerprints and recorded visitors, including his closest confidants, by image and audio. He had it all covered. The Empire upheld him as a sterling example of the self-made man. The old Emperor, Franz Josef even awarded Redl a medal for “Expression of Supreme Satisfaction.” In an empire where legacies were almost always born and rarely made, Redl was the ultimate exception to the rules. In fact, it would turn out that he was making his own rules.

Honor, Tradition & Treason
When he was finally “discovered” Redl’s traitorous actions scandalized and weakened the Army. It had been the one institution in a rapidly fading empire that upheld honor and tradition. As the scandal broke, it was not so much Redl who had been exposed, as it was the Army’s and by extension the Empire’s image which was irreparably tarnished. Here was one of its most decorated officers, who had ascended from the ranks of the commoners, to hold an exalted position. Now the word was out, the Army was riven by decadence and corruption, the rot was pervasive, it was no different from the rest of the monarchy. The damage to Redl’s reputation did not much matter since he was already dead. Redl after all was just a man. The Army was an institution, a symbol of the Monarchy, and the Monarchy was everything. Just over five years after Redl’s death it would be nothing.