Who (today, 105 years ago) Killed the Habsburg Empire?

The article argues that the Habsburg empire declined and ultimately collapsed—with disastrous consequences for the global geopolitical system—not because of its critics, such as, Frantisek Palacky or Thomas Masaryk, or because of the enmity of its subjects. It disintegrated because it had consistently empowered mediocre or even ignorant and narcissistic personalities. To illustrate this point, I will introduce Feldzeugmeister Oskar Potiorek. The article concludes that today’s Central Europe is ruled by Potiorek’s heirs, and the outcome is unlikely to be good.

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Like Metternich to Vienna, Palacky (1798-1876) came to Prague when he was already in his twenties, but his scholarship and his personal integrity were so impeccable that the Estates appointed him the Historian of the Bohemian Kingdom. His academic reputation grew further and in 1848 he was invited to take part in the preparations for the Frankfurt Assembly.

Palacky refused to participate in the proceedings with a letter that ranks among the most far-seeing analytical documents of the 19th c. He warned that the initiatives of the Frankfurt Assembly would ultimately undermine and destroy the Habsburg empire and he concluded that “Austria dissolved into a number of republics and smaller republics” would become “a welcome foundation for the Russian universal monarchy.”

It is unclear how closely Palacky had followed British or French periodicals. If so, he would have agreed with articles that started appearing in the mid-1830s, noting that since Peter the Great, Russia had extended its territory some 700 miles toward Berlin, Dresden, Munich, and Vienna, about 500 miles toward Constantinople, 630 miles toward Stockholm, and 1,000 miles toward Teheran. Marx quoted this observation in 1849.

Palacky’s letter to Frankfurt explains that the destruction of the Habsburg empire and its replacement with successor states was bound to have the unintended consequence of bringing Russia into the heart of Europe. With this mind, Palacky thanked his colleagues for the invitation to be a co-organizer of the Frankfurt Assembly and explained why he was unable to accept it. Russia, he warned, “already grown to colossal size, increases in strength and pushes outward from the center from one decade to the next. Every further step that it may be able to take threatens to accelerate the creation and imposition of a new universal monarchy—an unimaginable and inexpressible evil, a calamity without limit or end.” Palacky was careful to stress that he applauded every advance that Russia makes “on the path of civilization.” What he opposed was not Russia, but the global reach of its rule.

The empire of the Habsburgs, Palacky conceded, was flawed. But he was prepared to uphold it as a shield against the Russian universal monarchy. He concluded his letter to Frankfurt: “If the Austrian empire had not existed for ages, it would have been in the interest of Europe and humanity to try to create it as soon as possible.” It gives one pause to read this stark warning with the knowledge that a century later, in February 1948, Joseph Stalin acquired Czechoslovakia as the last remaining vassal in a thoroughly Russified Central Europe.

The letter to Frankfurt is reasonably well known. But not everyone appreciates that after the Habsburgs had reestablished their power after the upheavals of 1848-1849, Palacky grew progressively disillusioned with the empire. Finally, in 1865, as Austria found itself sliding toward the Ausgleich with Hungary, he modified his pro-Habsburg attitude. He saw the Ausgleich as an attempt to enshrine the German and Magyar domination over the other nations. In his Idea of the Austrian State Palacky argued that between the first (1529) and second siege of Vienna (1683), the nations of Central Europe had a reason to come together to seek protection against the Ottoman threat. But by the middle of the 19th c. the German and Magyar hegemonic centralization had run contrary to the idea of equality of nations (Nationstamm) in the empire. As the Slovene deputy Luka Svetec put it, the Ausgleich divided Austria into “those nations who ruled through no merit of their own, and those who served through no fault of their own.”

“The day when dualism is proclaimed,” predicted Palacky, “will also be the day Pan-Slavism is born in its least desirable form, and its godparents will be the parents of dualism. What will follow can be imagined by every reader himself. We existed before Austria, and we shall exist after her.” Palacky died in 1876 alienated from the Habsburg political project. His hopes for a federalization of the empire were shattered as Franz Joseph and his court chose to centralize it. Palacky would have been prepared to live and die as an Austrian subject of Bohemian descent, but not as an Austro-Hungarian or worse, a pseudo-Prussian.

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Masaryk (1850-1937) is often regarded as a philosopher-king, an intellectual who challenged others to live up to high ethical standards. He was so charismatic that people who met him even once remembered the occasion for the rest of their lives. He cultivated his image of an intellectual and philosopher. His contribution to philosophy proved to be minimal but he turned out to be a brilliant politician. A pragmatic aficionado of power, Masaryk could be surprisingly shrewd. When a worthy objective was at stake, he fought for it with great skill. If circumstances conspired against him, he could be surprisingly ruthless.

Masaryk came to Prague from Vienna in 1882 as a professor of philosophy and a human rights activist. Within a year or two, he was the best-known public intellectual in town. Like many successful reformers, he carefully avoided the reputation of a revolutionary. Although he later tried to cover it up, he was certainly prepared to work for the improvement of the Czech position in the empire within its legal framework and in small increments. In that regard he was indistinguishable from Palacky. After all, even Edvard Benes, whose later hatred of everything Habsburg was notorious, wrote his dissertation in Dijon, France, on the need to federalize—not destroy—the Habsburg realm.

When the war broke out, Masaryk consulted various personalities: “If Austria wins, will Vienna be capable of carrying out the necessary reforms?” The answer was that victory was likely to be followed by further centralization and Germanization. The prediction was accurate. When the war broke out, the k u. k Army usurped more power for itself and imposed control over all crucial institutions. The empire was militarized, and all most political activities were suppressed as subversive.

This changed everything. Palacky’s breaking point was the Ausgleich. For Masaryk it was the madness of Sarajevo, the reckless declaration of war, and Prussian-style deification of the Army.

Masaryk traveled to Rotterdam, where he shared a tentative map of a future Czechoslovakia with R. W. Seton-Watson, the British historian and Foreign Office specialist on Central Europe. He understood the Anglo-American political culture and he could operate within its framework. In their inimitable way, the British liked him, too. One noted that Masaryk “changed his linen frequently and kept his appointments.”

In due course, Seton-Watson wrote a memorandum capturing Masaryk’s account of the Austrian situation that was made available to the Allies. In May 1915, Masaryk prepared a document called “Independent Bohemia” for Sir Edward Grey. There was no place for Austria-Hungary in this scheme.

Masaryk officially launched his political campaign on behalf of independent Czechoslovakia in July 1915 in Geneva. Within a few years, this stateless academic without any visible means at his disposal, succeeded in establishing himself as a generally respected personality in international politics. Of course, the war had helped, as did the Legions. And it was crucially important that, after the United States joined the fight, Austria-Hungary and its allies were on their way to defeat.

Finally, in mid-October 1918, Emperor Charles groped his way toward restructuring the realm into a federal state in which all national entities would enjoy autonomy, while also profiting from the safety of being part of a large state. Charles’s proposal merely reflected the sentiments expressed at the Austrian constitutional convention by Palacky and his (future) son-in-law Frantisek Ladislav Rieger at Kremsier: “We must construct Austria in such a manner that the people will gladly live in it.” Alas, Charles was now too late.

On 19 October 1918, Washington informed Vienna that the provisions of President Wilson’s Point Ten of January 1918, which called for the federalization of the Habsburg empire, had been surpassed. Now only the Czechs would “be the judges of what action on the part of the Austro-Hungarian Government will satisfy their aspirations.” The United States granted the Masaryk National Council de facto recognition. The British, the French, the Italians, and the Serbs had already done so or were about to do it.

This was a curious decision: the most important world powers had recognized a “government” that consisted of three exiled men (Masaryk, Benes, and Milan Stefanik) who possessed no legal authority of any kind or any traceable income. The recognition came when there was no map of the new country and no coherent group of people to whom citizenship in the future state would be granted. It would soon turn out that the “Czechoslovak nation” was an empty and ultimately dangerous fiction. Its subsection, the Czech nation, was—and remains today—an unfinished project.

On 22 October 1918, Emperor Karl told Vaclav Klofac, a respected Czech politician whose son had been recently killed-in-action as an Austrian soldier, that enough blood had been shed. Klofac and his Czech colleagues in the Reichsrat agreed that Karl meant to tell them that he would not stand in the way if they decided to sever their ties with the empire, as long as it was done with decorum and without violence.

Before the end of October Count Andrassy announced that Vienna had accepted all the American conditions and that negotiations between Austria-Hungary and the Allies could now begin. This was taken to imply Vienna’s unconditional surrender, and the Czechs used the occasion to notify the Habsburg authorities in Prague that they had seized power on behalf of a National Committee.

Masaryk said he needed fifty years for the new state and, perhaps, the nation, to establish themselves. He got less than twenty. He died in 1937 and was spared of seeing the worst consequences of the destruction of the Habsburg state. If he had witnessed the Munich Agreement of 1938 and the Prague coup d’état of 1948, he would have joined the Kaiser who said at the end of the Great War: “Ich habe es nicht gewollt“ [This I didn’t want].

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If my argument, so far, is accurate, and Palacky, Masaryk and their ilk did not bring down the Habsburg empire, then the question remains: who did? Thousands of self-centered mediocrities whom the emperor routinely promoted. Consider Feldzeugmeister Potiorek. Born in 1852, he always wanted to be a soldier. And it turned out that he was good at it.

As a 10-year-old boy he went to a military school, where he quickly became a star student. He was then admitted to Kriegsschule, the war academy, the exclusive path for those hoping to become general staff officers, the army elite. Potiorek was a star student in almost all subjects. His professors considered him brilliant. In 1888, he was promoted to join the operational department of the General Staff. It was the brain of the k. u k. armed forces, and Potiorek excelled even there.

The emperor must have considered Potiorek a most capable man because he made him, in 1911, the governor (Landeschef) in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH). He imposed a military regime and was soon reporting to Vienna that BiH was pacified and ready to be inspected by the successor, Archduke Franz-Ferdinand. When others pointed out that secret organizations kept operating in the area, Potiorek dismissed them as hysterics. The police in Sarajevo warned that Serbs were plotting to carry out acts of terrorism, Potiorek ignored them. Even attempts on the lives of various politicians made no impact on him.

On 28 June 1914 a journalist had arrived in Sarajevo before the archducal but morganatic couple. He was astonished to discover that there was not a police officer or any security in sight. After a few hours in the city he realized that the successor was about to get caught in an ambush. Some tried to explain to Potiorek that security was needed to protect the noble visitors. Perhaps soldiers could be deployed along the key roads in Sarajevo? He dismissed the idea because the troops had been engaged in field exercises and their boots and uniforms were dirty. This is how Potiorek delivered Franz-Ferdinand and Sophie Chotek before the revolver of Gavrilo Princip.

Another in his place would have promptly shot himself. Such, certainly, was the tradition in the k. u k. Army. Potiorek did not think he did anything wrong. And Franz Josef apparently agreed with him because he promoted him to become the Austro-Hungarian commander-in-chief (Oberbefehlshaber) in the Balkans. This put him in charge of the offensive against on the Serbs.

From the start Potiorek’s performance was catastrophic. The small but tough Serb Royal Army initially retreated, but quickly regained the lost terrain. It was only in early December 1914 that the troops under Potiorek’s command took Belgrade. Then came the Serb counteroffensive. This time the Army did not merely retreat. It had to run because the k u. k soldiers had neither ammunition nor food nor even winter clothes.

It took time before various k u. k inspectors dared to conclude that Potiorek was criminally negligent in his duties. His troops took great losses: out of the original force of 460,000, Potiorek lost 30,000 who were killed-in-action, 170,000 were wounded-in-action, and 70,000 were taken prisoners of war. But as this mayhem was going on, Potiorek devoted hours every day to writing a diary and hand-copying every order he issued and every piece of paper that came into his Headquarters.

He was the sort of pathological narcissist that Vienna—and Emperor Franz Joseph personally—tended to promote. Potiorek and others like him were the real gravediggers of the empire, not Palacky and Masaryk. The emperor and the people he empowered lacked the imagination and courage it would have taken to federalize the empire and hold it together.

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The successor states did not perform well in the interwar period. Their monomaniacal self-centeredness made it impossible for them to cooperate and, consequently, they each had to walk to their own private Golgotha. First under Hitler, then under Stalin and his multiple heirs.

The miraculous events in 1989 brought freedom to Central Europe and opened the door to the West. But after some years of hope and optimism, the successor states are again sinking—this time voluntarily—into isolation in the gray zone between the East and the West.

The horrors of the 20th century visited upon the former Habsburg lands could be plausibly attributed to Nazism and Communism, that is, to the “Germans” and the “Russians.” This time, there is no external evil force on which to pin the blame. Judging by the results of democratic elections in Vienna, Budapest, Prague, Bratislava, and the Balkans, the filth of Hitler and Stalin has found its outpost inside many voters’ hearts. Moreover, the governments throughout the region are filled to the brim with latter-day Potioreks. And even that may be an expression of optimism for Potiorek may have been a narcissistic fool, but he was a loyal Austrian patriot, not a liar, a racist, a thief, or an agent of a foreign power.

published: 28. 6. 2019

Igor Lukeš

Igor Lukeš

Univerzitní profesor / Autor je univerzitním profesorem a profesorem historie a mezinárodních vztahů na Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University.