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A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire

Readers trying to understand the complex origins of World War I must begin in the Balkans, and in the fading, somnolent court of Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Joseph I. Why? Because the Great War — as the First World War would shortly be known — could not have begun anywhere else, or through any other agency than Vienna's. There had been great-power crises in Morocco, Libya, and elsewhere in the years before 1914, but none had flared into war. Even a succession of Balkan crises had failed to ignite war. But the July Crisis of 1914 did, precisely because of the German and Austrian gamble that Vienna had to fight that summer or go under.

Vienna in 1914 was Europe's real "Sick Man." Although the Ottoman Empire had claimed that title since the 19th century, the Turks had revived themselves with the Young Turk Revolution of 1908 and shored themselves up for the long haul. (The militarized Turkey of 1908 is still around today.) Even Constantinople's defeats in the two Balkan Wars (1912-13) had paradoxically strengthened the Turks by testing their reformed army and shearing off restive provinces in the Balkans that the Turks had been wasting resources trying to rule.

The Austro-Hungarians showed none of that pragmatism. True to their motto — "let justice be done, though the world perish" — they clung to everything, insisting on their dynastic rights to places as diverse as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Trieste, and southern Poland. This attitude had been correct in the 18th century but had become increasingly untenable in the 19th century "Age of Nationalism" and all but indefensible in the 20th, when Austria's dozen nationalities — Czechs, Hungarians, Poles, Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Ukrainians, Rumanians, and others — struggled to escape Habsburg rule and create their own nation-states.

Eighty-four year-old Emperor Franz Joseph I presided over this polyglot empire. He had ascended the throne in the Victorian Age (in 1848, at the age of 18) and had never revised his views of government. To him, prudent concessions on language, culture, and borders were anathema. He deluded himself that a multinational empire could not survive if it traded away provinces (as the Turks had successfully done in 1912-13). He exacerbated the problem by acquiring new liabilities, like the Serb-filled provinces of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which Austria occupied in 1878 and annexed on the eve of World War I, provoking a major crisis with Russia and Serbia.

True to his undiscerning nature, imprudent concessions were all that Franz Joseph allowed himself. After the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, in which the Austrian army was roundly defeated at Königgrätz and expelled from the German Confederation (permitting Bismarck's unification of Germany under Prussian rule), Franz Joseph made a Faustian pact with the Habsburg Monarchy's large Hungarian minority. If the Hungarians would cease agitating for secession, he would split the monarchy in two — a western half under German Austrian rule and an eastern half under Hungarian rule — and call it "Austria-Hungary." Everything after 1867 would be "dualist": the banknotes, the flags, the emblems, the politics, the economy, and, most fatefully in the context of 1914, the military.

Dualism rotted the 400-year-old Habsburg Monarchy from the inside out.Dualism rotted the 400-year-old Habsburg Monarchy from the inside out. Whereas the German Austrians were officious yet slack, the Hungarians were viciously stringent. They used their new privileges to commence a campaign of "denationalization" in what was now called the Kingdom of Hungary. But "Hungary" actually contained large numbers of non-Hungarians: Rumanians, Slovaks, Ukrainians, Serbs, and Roma. The new government in Budapest tried to stamp them all out by banning their languages, schools, and churches. On the Austrian face of an Austro-Hungarian banknote, the denomination was spelled out in every language of the monarchy; on the Hungarian side it was spelled out in Magyar alone.

Given its towering liabilities — enemies on every border and secessionist movements within — the Habsburg military needed to be one of the most potent in Europe. The Hungarians made sure that it wasn't. Why? Because the new government in Budapest — which operated from the magnificent Houses of Parliament completed on the Danube bend in 1904 — viewed the Austro-Hungarian army as a stalking horse for Vienna's eventual reconquest and reannexation of Hungary. This was not paranoid fantasy. The old emperor was being stalked by a young crown prince, the very same Archduke Franz Ferdinand whose assassination in Sarajevo in June 1914 would trigger the Great War. Franz Ferdinand felt contempt for the drowsy emperor, who left Vienna for his hunting lodge in Upper Austria at every opportunity and repeatedly dealt with the escalating problems of the empire (language disputes in the bureaucracy, schools and universities, international crises, corruption scandals) by the same expedient: more concessions to the Hungarians, in the fond hope that appeasement would keep them in the empire and permit Franz Joseph to live out his days as an "Emperor of Peace."

Franz Ferdinand, who turned 50 in 1913, brazenly set up a shadow government in the Belvedere Palace on the Rennweg and began vetting and even cancelling decisions by the emperor. The two Habsburg princes battled over everything: appointments, promotions, and policies. Franz Ferdinand was focused above all on the Hungarian ulcer. In 1905, he had secretly drafted a Plan U (as in Ungarn or Hungary) that envisioned the Austrian invasion and subjugation of Hungary. "Magyarization" was so unpopular among Hungary's non-Hungarians that Plan U anticipated that most of the troops in the Kingdom of Hungary would actually fight with the emperor against Hungary.

Well aware of the archduke's plans, the Hungarians cut or froze the budgets for the Habsburg military in the decades after 1867, viewing imperial weakness as preferable to imperial strength. And so the Austro-Hungarian military arrived on the threshold of the world war of 1914 with a laughably small army: just 48 divisions (as many as the Italians, but half as many as the French and half to a third as many as the Russians). "Really," a French analyst in Vienna drawled, "an army of 400,000 is not much for an empire of 50 million." And because World War I was going to be an artillery war — no surprise, the lessons of the Russo-Japanese War being fresh in everyone's mind — Austro-Hungarian weakness in that essential category was even more alarming: they had virtually no heavy artillery and their light field guns were obsolete bronze pieces. The Austrians had the lowest ratio of guns to infantry of any of the great powers. The Germans on the eve of the war considered the Austrians "adequate only for a campaign against Serbia but inadequate for a major European war."

Given German skepticism, Berlin's willingness to spark World War I is all the more remarkable. A Mad Catastrophe is an important book because it fills all this in: German doubts about Austria, Austro-Hungarian doubts about themselves, and the breakneck calculations of summer 1914. Only too aware of Austria's decay, the Germans, who were briefly enjoying the best-armed military in Europe (the Russians and French were slated to overtake them by 1917), gambled that they could defeat first the French and British in the west, and then hurl everything east to help the Austrians defeat the fabled "Russian steamroller." According to this Schlieffen Plan, the Austro-Hungarians would have to mobilize swiftly, transport their entire strength to the Russian border, and hold off the (theoretically) less efficient Russians until Germany's entire strength arrived (after seven weeks) from the Western Front.

A Mad Catastrophe describes the mad catastrophe of Vienna's arrangements. Their generalissimo was Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, weirdly accounted a great commander. He bungled everything: the mobilization, the deployment, and then operations in Galicia (western Ukraine/southern Poland) and Serbia. The history of the early battles is fascinating. The two Austrian armies aimed at Serbia invaded the country with a superiority complex. The Serbs were tough fighters but woefully equipped. They had been through the two Balkan Wars in 1912-13 and used up their best troops and matériel; they made the rag-tag Austrians look like supermen. But the general in charge of Austria's southern front — Oskar Potiorek — was a pretentious fool. His three campaigns in Serbia in 1914 must be read in detail to be believed. Conrad's dispositions on the Galician front, with four Austro-Hungarian armies, were riotously misguided and quite tragic. The celebrity general literally destroyed the bulk of his own army in a sequence of bloody, hopeless battles pressed more to puff up his reputation than wring any kind of sustainable victory from a massive Russian army that had far more troops and artillery than the Austrians.

No history of the First World War is complete or even comprehensible without an understanding of events on the Eastern and Balkan Fronts, where Austro-Hungarian floundering ripped open the flank of the Central Powers and assured their eventual defeat.

÷ ÷ ÷

Geoffrey Wawro studied at Brown and Yale and is Professor of History and Director of the Military History Center at the University of North Texas. The author of six books, including A Mad Catastrophe, Quicksand, and The Franco-Prussian War, Wawro lives in Dallas, Texas.


Books mentioned in this post

  1. A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of... New Hardcover $29.99
  2. Quicksand: America's Pursuit of... Used Trade Paper $11.00
  3. The Franco-Prussian War: The German... New Hardcover $52.95


Geoffrey Wawro is the author of A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire

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