In Defiance of Fate (Part Two) – History Stuck On Repeat: The Republic of Carpatho-Ruthenia

There is a belief among some historically minded people that everything old becomes new again. This is a clever take on the old cliché that history repeats itself. No historical parallel is perfect, but the present often contains striking similarities to the past. Surprisingly, this has been the case with the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine. Despite the fact that the republic officially lasted less than a day, the idea of an independent nation-state for the people of the Subcarpathian region of Ukraine continues to resurface. Why is this so? What are the chances it might actually happen? And most importantly would it be a viable political entity?

Map of Ukraine with Zakarpattia Oblast in red

Map of Ukraine with Zakarpattia Oblast in red

Deferred, But Not Defeated – Independence & Subcarpathia
The dream of an independent Subcarpathian state all but vanished when the region became part of the Soviet Union in the aftermath of World War II. Though heavy handed, Soviet rule stabilized the area. It was not until 1991, when the Soviet Union disintegrated that the idea of a separate Subcarpathian state reemerged. As the region had been part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic it only seemed natural that it would become part of an independent Ukraine. Conversely, because of the area’s unique geographical position which had kept it relatively isolated from the rest of Ukraine and the fact that its Rusyn population was considered to be quite distinct from Ukrainians further east, the local Zakarpattia oblast (province) proposed self-rule. During Ukraine’s independence referendum, Zakarpattians were allowed to vote on autonomy. Almost 80% were in favor of self-rule. Nonetheless, Zakarpattia was given only provincial status. Interestingly, the boundaries of Zakarpattia oblast were exactly the same as those of the short lived Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine. The idea of independence had been delayed, but certainly had not died.

Soon another idea was floated to turn back the clock to 1919 and reattach Subcarpathian Ukraine to Czechoslovakia. The split of that state into separate Czech and Slovak nations in 1994 put this idea to rest. Meanwhile, Ukraine suffered from endemic corruption, economic woes and political crisis. It was pretty much a failed state. In 2004 the Orange Revolution seemed to promise a more optimistic future. This turned out to be nothing more than a false dawn. The money and the power, the backroom deal making and convoluted politics only suited either the ruling class in Kiev or those doing business in the Ukrainian industrial heartland of the Donbas region. Zakarpattia was all, but forgotten by Ukraine until the autumn of 2008 when the Republic of Carpathian Ruthenia was formed by a group of 100 delegates known as the Congress of Carpathian Ruthenia.

The Coat of Arms for Zakarpattia Oblast is almost an exact replica of the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraines flag

The Coat of Arms for Zakarpattia Oblast is almost an exact replica of the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraines flag (Credit: Alex Tora)

History Stuck On Repeat – From Carpatho-Ukraine to Carpatho-Ruthenia
The name change from Carpatho-Ukraine to Carpatho-Ruthenia was not a mistake. For political expediency, the separatists were returning to the early 20th century when the people of the area were known as Ruthenians rather than Ukrainians. This was the time when the first dreams of independence for the region and its people had begun to blossom. The irony of this name change was that in the 2001 census only one tenth of one percent of the region’s citizens actually called themselves Rusyns (another name for Ruthenians). By contrast, eight out of ten Zakarpattians stated that they were Ukrainian.  The local Rusyn dialect had pretty much become indistinguishable from the Ukrainian language. The absorption of Zakarpattia into Ukraine seemed complete. The question became, where did this separatist movement come from?

For that answer, Ukrainians could look no further than their much larger and domineering neighbor. The long shadow cast by Russia over Ukraine reached all the way to the remote slopes of Subcarpathia. It turned out that the Congress of Carpathian Ruthenia was a shadowy front for a Russian funded effort to break Zakarpattia away from Ukraine. Less than a year before, the same situation had been fomented by the Russians in two areas of Georgia, Abkhazia and North Ossetia. With Russian support, these two areas became breakaway republics. The problem for the separatist movement in Zakarpattia was that all of Ukraine stood between themselves and Russia. The movement soon collapsed when Ukrainian nationalists threatened to use all necessary means to bring the separatists back into line. As for the Russians, they eventually decided to focus their destabilizing efforts along their shared border with Ukraine. This past summer they controversially offered weapons and soldiers in support of another separatist movement in Ukraine. The result has been vicious fighting in the Donbas Region. This has led to thousands of Ukrainians being killed and wounded. The rebels have been able to secure a precarious degree of autonomy for themselves. An uneasy peace has brought the conflict largely to a halt for now, but this just might be the start of centralized Ukraine splintering along ethnic, linguistic or geographical lines.

Rural Village in Zakarpattia - whatever the future brings fro Transcarpathia life will continue much as it has for centuries (Credit: Alex Zelenko)

Rural Village in Zakarpattia – whatever the future brings fro Transcarpathia life will continue much as it has for centuries (Credit: Alex Zelenko)

Its Own Internal Logic  – History & Transcarpathia
Will Zakarpattia push for greater autonomy as well? At this time it is very hard to say what will happen. The future of this remote, beautiful, Eastern European backwater is just as murky as it was during the 20th century. It is doubtful that Carpatho-Ruthenia or Carpatho-Ukraine will ever become an independent nation. Then again, who would have believed that such a movement would still be alive in the 21st century? History in this area seems to have its own internal logic. Powers both great and small, conquer and then suddenly vanish. They leave behind traces of their presence, mostly shadows and scars. The past repeats itself, however imperfectly. What remains are the people of this remote, breathtakingly beautiful land.  In defiance of fate they continue their search for independence.

In Defiance of Fate (Part One) -The Republic of One Day: Carpatho-Ukraine

On March 15, 1939, the sun rose on the eastern slopes of the Carpathian Mountains, in the land known as Subcarpathia. A new day was about to dawn both literally and figuratively. For the eight hundred thousand-odd people living in Subcarpathia at the time, it would be their last day ever as part of Czechoslovakia. The area was about to experience an identity crisis of historic proportions. This remote land, a forgotten backwater, began the day as an autonomous region of Czechoslovakia. At lunchtime it was a newly independent nation, known as the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine. By the next morning it was part of Hungary. Independence was fleeting, it did not even last the night. In just twenty-four hours, the population had been part of three separate nations. If given a choice, the majority of the populace would have preferred independence, but history was not on their side. The story of this land and its people’s geo-political situation over the past century is filled with fits and starts, false hopes and lost dreams. Independence turned out to be a dead end, but in the process, due more too historical accident rather than design, by the end of the 20th century, the region had received the next best thing, virtual autonomy. Through it all, in defiance of fate, the majority Rusyn population of the area retained a distinct identity.

Carpatho-Ukraine in March 1939

Carpatho-Ukraine in March 1939

Playground of the Powers: Great & Small
Carpatho-Ukraine is a beautiful, bucolic land. It contains the foothills and smaller mountains of the Carpathian range. The Carpathians are well known in Europe, but not the small slice that is part of Ukraine. The majority of the Carpathians lie further south in Romania, famous as part of Transylvania. This is a forgotten land, relatively unknown, with a modern history that is complex and confusing. Ukraine, roughly translated means borderland, and Carpatho-Ukraine, is the ultimate borderland in a border country. A quintessential frontier, it has been an appendage of empires and nation-states from time immemorial. In the last one hundred years it has been the playground of a withering array of political entities. These have included the Austro—Hungarian Empire, the Hungarian Red (Communist) Republic, Romania, the West Ukrainian People’s Republic, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the Soviet Union and the Ukraine. It has been conquered and occupied, as well as autonomous and independent. Presently it is a province of Ukraine, but has a coat of arms and flag that is almost an exact replica of the one that was used when it declared independence.

The idea of an independent republic that could not even last a day seems to be an historical absurdity. Was Carpatho-Ukraine unworthy of nationhood? Was this an attempt to take advantage of a specific geo-political situation? This slice of the sub-Carpathians failed as an independent nation in 1939 because it was crushed by powerful geo-political entities carving up Europe to suit their own interests. Paradoxically it was only because of power politics that Carpatho-Ukraine was able to gain its independence, if only for one day.

Occupying force - a Hungarian soldier in Khust  (Credit: fortepan.hu)

Occupying force – a Hungarian soldier in Khust (Credit: fortepan.hu)

History As Opportunism: The Disintegration of Czechoslovakia
To understand, the situation Carpatho-Ukraine found itself in, one must understand what was happening to Czechoslovakia, the nation-state it was part of from 1919 to 1939. Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany first began to dismember Czechoslovakia by occupying the Sudetenland to “protect” the German population from the Czechs. Hitler and his henchmen were not the kind of geo-political players who could ever be appeased. It was not long before the Nazis wanted all of Bohemia and Moravia, the traditional homeland of the Czechs. In addition, Hitler had allowed Hungary to take the southern part of Slovakia, with its large Hungarian population. Meanwhile the rest of Slovakia had declared autonomy. Because of this, Czechoslovakia was being divided or perhaps more to the point, hyphenated. Its name was actually changed to Czecho-Slovakia, reflecting the virtual separation of Slovakia from the Czech portion of the state. Forgotten in the unfolding of this historical tragedy was a third, bit player.

The far eastern quarter of Czechoslovakia was known as Trans-Carpathia. It was neither Czech nor Slovak. Neither was it Hungarian, even though it had been part of the Hungarian portion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire prior to World War I. It contained a smattering of Slovaks, Germans, Hungarians and Jews, but two-thirds of the population was Rusyn or Ruthenian, a people who were akin to the larger Eastern Slav population of Ukraine. Eventually, perhaps inevitably they would come to be called Ukrainians and the land they inhabited as the Carpatho-Ukraine. Following World War I Ukraine as a political entity had failed. Thus, Carpatho-Ukraine was attached to Czechoslovakia in 1919. Fast forward two decades, with Czechoslovakia disintegrating, Carpatho-Ukraine declared autonomy on October 11, 1939. Five months later, on March 14th, as the Germans stormed into Bohemia and Moravia, and Slovakia about to become an independent nation, a Carpatho-Ukrainian parliament convened in the city of Khust. There they voted to become an independent republic.

Panorama of Khust, Ukraine - the capital of the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine (Credit: Власна робота)

Panorama of Khust, Ukraine – the capital of the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine (Credit: Власна робота)

No Man’s Land – Oppressors and the Oppressed
Within a few hours of this declaration the leaders of Carpatho-Ukraine fled into exile. The reason, Hungarian troops were already crossing the border. By the evening of March 15th a Hungarian force the size of two army divisions had invaded Carpatho-Ukraine. The new republic’s defense force, known as the Carpathian Sich, consisted of only 5,000 troops. By the next morning, Carpatho-Ukraine ceased to exist. It was now part of Hungary, despite the fact that less than ten percent of its population was ethnically Hungarian. Why did the Hungarians want this region? It allowed them a strategic wedge between Romania and Czechoslovakia (which ironically now ceased to exist). These states had dismembered “Historic” Hungary in the aftermath of World War I. Now the Hungarians were reconstituting their former domains. Amidst this geo-political morass were the Carpatho-Ukrainians. Their incipient state vanished into oblivion, their autonomy was gone. Nonetheless, a historic seed had been planted.

The Hungarians would come to regret their land grab. Although the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine lasted less than a day, Hungarian rule over the area was also fleeting. Only five years later, in 1944, the Soviet Army came roaring out of the east. Many of the Hungarians and virtually all Germans in the area were either deported to the Gulag or murdered. Carpatho-Ukraine now became part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic which was part of the Soviet Union. Thus, Carpatho-Ukraine became a constituent of a constituent republic. Interestingly, the idea of a Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine did not end on that fateful Wednesday of March 15th, 1939. It has had an intriguing after life, one that will be discussed in a coming blog post.

 

 

Formidable Yet Forgotten – Palanok Castle & Historic Hungary

Of all the lands lost by Hungary in the post-World War I Treaty of Trianon, those defined as the sub-Carpathians are the least discussed. Today the region is part of southwestern Ukraine. This is a land defined as much by nature as by its people. It is a beautifully rugged landscape covered by thick woods and volcanic hills tucked into hidden, secluded valleys. Following World War I the area was placed in the new nation of Czechoslovakia. This placement did not even last two decades. Prior to the outbreak of World War II it was given back to Hungary by the Germans who were in the process of dismembering Czechoslovakia. By the end of the war it was occupied, as was all of Hungary, by the Soviet Army. It then became part of the Soviet Union. Following the dissolution of the Soviet state, it became part of Ukraine. This remote land was passed from one political entity to the next with little forethought as to the wants or needs of its population. The majority population was Ruthenian, a Slavic people who have become assimilated in the Ukrainian state and are known as such today.

Until World War II there was also a sizable Jewish population which actually constituted a majority in many towns, including Munkacs (Mukacheve, Ukraine). As for Hungarians, they were mostly found during the early 20th century as they are today in urban environments. The population of ethnic Hungarians in this region is approximately 150,000. Compared to the 1.2 million ethnic Hungarians in Romania or the 450,000 in Slovakia, those in Ukraine are unlikely to garner much notice. Nonetheless, just as in Romania and Slovakia, the Hungarian influence in this area is marked not just by the people, but also the region’s history. Their cultural heritage is still alive and dynamic. In Hungary, there is scant awareness of this land that was both lost to history and forgotten by memory. Nowhere does the Hungarian historical legacy in the sub-Carpathians come to prominence as dramatically as Palanok Castle in Munkacs (known as Mukachevo in Ukraine).

Palanok Castle - atop Lumkova Hill and Munkacs

Palanok Castle – atop Lumkova Hill and Munkacs

Deep History – Munkacs: Centuries and Millenniums
Today Munkacs is a city of 93,000 people. It is less than an hour’s drive from the border of northeastern Hungary. Far and away the large majority of the populace is Ukrainian. They make up 77% of the inhabitants. Meanwhile, a bit less than ten percent are ethnic Hungarians. A century ago, the demographic makeup was quite different. Munkacs was much smaller, but in those days it was no less a city. It had a population of 18,000, three-quarters of which were Hungarians, many of them Jewish. The area had first come into possession by the Hungarians when the first Magyar tribes arrived in the Carpathian Basin at the end of the 9th century. They entered the basin just sixty kilometers north of Munkacs, at the Verecke Pass. During the Middle Ages, Munkacs was made a Royal Free Town. This designation, along with its placement along the Latorica River, helped it become a hub for trade and merchantmen.

Yet it was many millenniums before, that Munkacs future prominence was decided. 68 meter (223 ft.) high Lamkova Hill was created by volcanic activity. This created a nearly impregnable outcropping, with clear lines of sight extending in every direction. Rulers of the area could not help, but notice. The first major constructions built atop this geological formation occurred under the direction of an early 14th century Lithuanian prince, Fedir Koriatovych. Koriatovych was the first of many nobles who made what would become Palanok Castle their home. These included no less a personage than Janos Hunyadi, Regent of Hungary, famed for defeating the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Nandorfehervar (Belgrade) in 1458.

Palanok Castle & Munkacs - drawing from 1686

Palanok Castle & Munkacs – drawing from 1686

Bastion of Defense – The Fight For Independence
The most interesting period in the castle’s history occurred when it became a center for military activity during the Hungarian fight to stay independent of Habsburg rule. Munkacs had formerly been attached to Transylvania in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which had helped guarantee it a degree of independence even as the Ottoman Turks reigned supreme over much of Hungary. When the Turks were finally ousted, the Habsburgs looked to extend their hegemony over all historic Hungarian lands. The notable freedom fighter, Ferenc Rakoczi II made the Palanok Castle his base in what became known as Rakoczi’s War of Independence (1703 – 1711). Like so much of Hungarian history Rakoczi and his forces resisted valiantly, but it was to no avail. The Habsburgs broke their resistance and Rakoczi fled into exile. In 1726, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI granted the castle along with several hundred villages in the area as an estate to the noble, Lothar Franz Von Schonborn who had helped put the emperor on the throne. The Schonborn family kept the castle up until the early 20th century. During much of that time it served as a prison. On one notable occasion, in 1805 -1806 it also served as a safe house for the Holy Crown of Hungary. It was taken there in order to protect it from theft by Napoleon’s forces.

Palanok Castle from a distance 1

Palanok Castle from a distance

The Walls of Palanok – Presence of the Past
The castle’s towering position above Munkacs offered it a high degree of protection across the centuries. This helped preserve the works for posterity. Today it is a historical monument that is open to visitors. The castle is made up of three parts: the low, middle and high. The towering presence of the entire complex would give any potential conqueror second thoughts. In its prime, the fortress sported no less than 164 cannon which could unload a fuselage of shot. This would be all the more deadly due to the force of their weighty plunge from the towering heights. Military engineering and technology, along with its natural situation, made it one of the most formidable works in the whole of historic Hungary.

Formidable yet forgotten, this is the lot of the sub-Carpathian lands that were once an integral part of the Kingdom of Hungary. Wild landscapes with an infusion of Hungarian history dot the area, nowhere more so than Munkacs. The sub-Carpathians are one of Europe’s least visited regions. The fortress at Munkacs makes a fantastic starting point for a visit. It showcases the presence of a past that is not so far or so distant. This is a place where history was shaped and formed by Hungarians. Their successes and failures can still be discerned behind the towering walls of Palanok Castle.

Ukraine & Nuclear Weapons – An Assurance That We Guarantee Nothing

Assurance – A strong and definite statement that something will happen or that something is true

Guaranteea promise, especially one given in writing, that attests to the quality or durability of a product or service

The biggest what if of the Cold War involved the question of nuclear war. What if the United States and Soviet Union had been unable to resolve their differences by any other means than a hot or shooting war? What if the conflict degenerated into a nuclear war? The consequences would not only have been disastrous for the American and Soviets, but indeed for everyone on the planet. One shudders to think what life might be like today (or not be like) if the catastrophe of a global thermonuclear war had taken place.

The Counterfactual as Doomsday Device
In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell, a couple of years later the Soviet Union dissolved. Many believed that the threat of a large scale nuclear conflict had passed into history. The world’s attention turned from the East-West divide in Europe to the threat of nuclear terrorism by rogue organizations. While this is certainly a concern, the recent tension over Ukrainian territory that has pitted Russia against the European Union and United States has brought the threat of a large-scale nuclear war back from the shadows. Commentators have remarked that the situation in Crimea and the Eastern Ukraine could eventually lead to NATO and Russia stumbling into a nuclear conflict. While this seems implausible, it is certainly not impossible.

An overlooked aspect of this crisis is another what-if scenario. Specifically, what-if the Ukraine had not given up the nuclear arsenal it inherited from the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s. What-if the Russians had then still tried to take over Crimea? What-if the Ukraine had responded by threatening the use of nuclear weapons? What if the Russians had done the same? What if the Ukraine-Russia conflict went nuclear? Nuclear weapons have a way of opening a Pandora’s box of imaginative what if’s, counterfactuals as doomsday device.

Just Trust Us - Bill Clinton, Boris Yeltsin & Leonid Kravchuk in Budapest, 1994

Just Trust Us – Bill Clinton, Boris Yeltsin & Leonid Kravchuk in Budapest, 1994

A Dangerous Game of Self Interest
Fortunately, the Ukraine-Russia situation will probably never lead to a nuclear conflagration. Hopefully it will never even come close. That is because twenty years ago representatives from the United States, Great Britain, Russia and the Ukraine met in Budapest. They negotiated what became known as the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. The memorandum, in effect, stated that the Ukraine would give up its nuclear weapons in return for assurances of its territorial integrity. The problem is an assurance is very different from a guarantee. An assurance is a statement that can be more or less definite, a guarantee is a promise. Think of guarantees as treaties that commit the signatories to certain actions. Assurances are based more on words than actions and as we all know, actions speak louder than words.

It would not be wrong to view the Budapest Memorandum as having given the Russians an opening they could expose. Ironically, it also gave the United States and Great Britain an opening. They did not have to guarantee Ukraine’s security. This was by design. A guarantee could have brought both of them into armed conflict with Russia one day. Neither was prepared to go to war with Russia over the Ukraine and certainly not a nuclear war. That was true twenty years ago, as it is true today. Nonetheless, that did not stop the Americans and British from involving themselves in the Russian sphere of influence. It is said that after the Soviet Union dissolved and the United States and its western Allies began to incorporate several former Soviet Republics into NATO, that the elder intellectual statesmen of the Cold War, George Kennan said that this was a terrible idea. He believed with some justification that if push came to shove, the alliance had no intention to defend with force such nations as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. He also thought the alliance’s action risked provoking Russia. In the future, Russia might not be so weak. NATO could conceivably end up in a no win situation. That seems more and more possible. After all, there were many who wanted Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO. This would have led to yet another scary what-if scenario. Does anyone really believe that the western world would have risked nuclear war to protect either of these nations from Russia? It is extremely doubtful.

For the time being, Ukraine remains a sovereign state. It will likely continue as such in some form or fashion, but there is a possibility that it could be dismembered or fall apart. If there had been no Budapest Memorandum the situation would have even come this far. This raises the question: What if Ukraine still had those nuclear weapons? It would almost certainly have ensured the long term survival of the nation. Nuclear states rarely disappear. They may ossify or thrive, but rarely do they disappear (the Soviet Union being the one notable exception). Nuclear weapons are the ultimate guarantor of national security, but international insecurity.

Ceremony at dismantled nuclear missile silo in Pervomaysk, Ukraine in 1996

Ceremony at dismantled nuclear missile silo in Pervomaysk, Ukraine in 1996

Back From the Brink, Back to the Brink – The Ukrainian Arsenal
And what, one might ask, did the Ukraine give up for those security assurances in the Budapest Memorandum. In 1994, it held one-third of the former Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal. This included over 1,900 strategic and 2,500 tactical nuclear weapons. At the time, it was the world’s third largest nuclear stockpile, more than the nuclear arms of Britain, France and China combined. The arsenal was greater than the amount of nuclear warheads deployed by both the American and Russian militaries today. It seems incredible that the Ukraine could be convinced to part with these weapons for a series of assurances. If they could do it all over again, things would almost certainly be different. Then again, Ukraine still has a large nuclear infrastructure that they might use to create their own weapons. As a member of the Ukrainian Parliament, Mustafa Dzhemilev recently said, “each country that has… capacity to acquire its own nuclear weapons will be aspired to go down that path, and Ukraine is no exception.”

Sometime in the future Europe could be threatened with a nuclear armed Ukraine. This would bring the post-Soviet, Ukraine-Russia dynamic full circle. No one could have ever imagined such a thing when both were integral parts of the Soviet Union. Back then the future seemed so certain, but as the cliché goes the only certainty is uncertainty. Perhaps uncertainty is the only thing that really can be guaranteed in this part of the world. Another series of nuclear what-ifs may well loom on the horizon. This time they may be a bit further to the east, but that makes them no less dangerous.

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.

Winning the Peace, Losing The War – The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk & German Empire In the East

Anyone studying the causes of World War II soon finds themselves going back to the aftermath of the First World War. Specifically, the Paris Peace Conference which negotiated among other things the Treaty of Versailles, which set the terms of peace between the Allies and Germany. The German reaction to this so called “unjust peace” is well known. Among other things, Germany was forced to pay reparations for war damages.  Humiliatingly, they also were forced to accept responsibility for the outbreak of the war. The treaty was used as propaganda by Hitler and the Nazis to build support for a campaign to redress what they considered a grievous wound to German pride. It was one of the leading causes of Germany’s disastrous entry into the Second World War.

Russian delegates who negotiated the treaty arrive at Brest-Litovsk where they are greeted by German officers

Russian delegates who negotiated the treaty arrive at Brest-Litovsk where they are greeted by German officers

The Seed of Self-Destruction
Less well known, but just as important was another treaty that was negotiated not after, but during the First World War, this was the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. It was this treaty which led the Germans to their real doom in the Second World War. The treaty itself actually ended fighting on the Eastern Front, but it was actually just the beginning. The beginning of a much enlarged Germany that occupied all of Ukraine, the Baltic states and even part of Belorussia. This was in addition to Russian Poland, which the Germans already held. The German memory this resulting occupation lasted much longer than the occupation itself. Even though they were forced by the Allies to surrender these areas by the end of 1918, the German interest in expansionism to the East had been piqued. They would be back with a vengeance in less than twenty-five years.

When Hitler stated that the German people needed living space, he knew where they could acquire it, in the east, by taking it from the Slavs. This treaty and its results have often been overlooked by historians. It actually sowed the seeds of destruction for the Third Reich. It led them on an eastern adventure from which they would never recover. It all came rather easily in 1917 and once again in 1941. These gains though, were ephemeral, historical mirages.

Trading Land For Peace
On the other hand, the Bolsheviks who initially gave up so much were the real winners of the peace.
The treaty was negotiated by a Bolshevik government whose main aim was to get out of the war at almost any cost. Lenin believed they could afford to surrender whole swathes of territory at the time. In his mind, the losses would be made up later. The Bolsheviks needed to consolidate the revolution in Russia first and cement Soviet power. After all, Bolshevism was going to foment a worldwide revolution, Germany would come later, the Soviet Union had to come first.

Following the treaty, the Bolsheviks were able to turn their attention back toward home. Eventually – in a very close call – they emerged victorious in the Russian Civil War. As for all the land they given up, much of it was handed back to them by the Allies. Sure they lost Poland, but it was now a republic which stood between Russia and Germany. The Germans would have to go through it first before they could get to the Soviet Union.

By the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk the Germans gained areas of Eastern Europe that had formerly been part of the Russian Empire - these areas had approximately 55 million people, 90% of Russia coal mines and a quarter of its industry

By the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk the Germans gained areas of Eastern Europe that had formerly been part of the Russian Empire – these areas had approximately 55 million people, 90% of Russia coal mines and a quarter of its industry

The World’s Largest Graveyard
Well the Germans did go through Poland and most of western Russia in the first three years of World War II, but all that land turned out to be a deadly lure. The Soviet Union was easy to invade and hard to conquer. What was conquered had to be occupied. Following Brest-Litovsk it took hundreds of thousands of soldiers to occupy these eastern lands, draining the lifeblood from the German Army. It was not much different in World War II, only worse. Not only did the Germans have to occupy the land, they also had to fight off a partisan insurgency fomented by Nazi racial policies. All of that land, all of that living space the Germans had acquired not once, but twice, became the world’s largest graveyard. On it died not only millions of soldiers, but also the German Empire and the Third Reich.

The Treaty of Versailles may have grievously wounded German pride, but the often overlooked Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was just as important. It displayed the true character of German imperialism. The Germans believed they were superior to their eastern neighbors, that it was their right to rule over them. First by treaty and then by arms they brought an occupation about. Both times it ended in disaster.