A History of Austria - Part X

Death of an Empire: Austria in World War I (1914 to 1918)

By 1914, Franz Joseph I had turned into an old man. If you make it to the treasury in Vienna, you will see the elaborately decorated and embroiled clothing for representative ceremonies that courts all over Europe used in the past millennium. Note that those from the K. & K. Empire are the most elaborate ones, much more than the medieval robes they were modelled after.

The somewhat reactionary and strangely imperialist Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assasinated in Sarajevo in 1914.

This was done to fake power and impress the crowds - you find a similar strategy manifested in the pompous buildings, such as the Hofburg Palace. The Hofburg was built at a point when everybody must have realised that the empire was already lying in state. Empress Elisabeth had been killed in 1898 by an Italian anarchist, and her son Rudolf had committed suicide even earlier in 1889 after a love affair. Franz Joseph′s nephew Franz Ferdinand was supposed to follow him on the throne.

On the 28th of June 1914, the Serbian national holiday, Franz Ferdinand visited army camps in Austria′s territory of Bosnia-Herzegowina. This was on the doorstep of Serbia and a severe provocation. A young man called Gavrilo Princip assassinated him and his wife Sophie. In response, Austria demanded extensive rights for investigations in Serbia, which was denied. What followed was a line of falling domino stones: all main powers of Europe were allied in one way or another and now declared war to their enemies or the enemies of their allies. The two big alliances were the Mittelmächte on one side (Austria-Hungary, Germany, Bulgaria, Turkey and Italy until 1917) and the Entente on the other (Britain, France, Russia, involuntarily Belgium, Serbia and, from 1917, Italy).

Don′t make the mistake to think that this war happened because the prince of a dying Empire was killed. There were many reasons for World War I, mostly concerned with power, greed and a pronounced nationalism all over Europe, stoked by the imperialist race for "den Platz an der Sonne" ("a spot in the sun"). This war was the most devastating of all wars Europe had ever seen; it was the first one with modern warfare and large-scale trenches with in which millions were used as gun fodder, slaughtered with newly developed explosives, poison gas or in brutal man to man fights.

The Habsburg's double-headed eagle on the former Ministry of War

For Austria-Hungary, the war was a complete disaster. The k. & k. military was in bad shape and the industrialisation of the eastern part of the empire was not very advanced, resulting in bad transport. Austria lost grounds to Russia and had to withdraw from its now Polish territories in Galicia. The frontlines were maintained with Prussian aid. Serbia turned out to be much more sophisticated than expected and progress was made only slowly and with the help of Bulgaria.

In 1916, Franz Joseph died and Karl I became the last Austrian-Hungarian Emperor. The supplies in Vienna were bad and at starvation very common. In 1917, Italy changed the lines and caused Austria high losses in the southern parts of the Alps. Lenin went with German aid from Switzerland to Russia and with the start of the Russian Revolution, there was peace on the Eastern front.

In October 1918, after millions had lost their lives, the Empire fell apart. Karl I tried to transform it into a federation of nations with democratic structures. He accepted that he would not be involved in future governments, but did not resign formally (this is mostly why he and his family was kicked out of Austria a little while later). After more than 600 years, the Habsburg rule ended in Austria and the empire disintegrated into a whole bunch of small countries. Austria was now called the democratic republic of "Deutschösterreich" ("German-Austria") to emphasise its ethnic background. Many German-speaking people (mostly Swabians and Jews) from other parts of the former empire moved to Vienna.

A crippled nation: Austria after WWI

It was a country that nobody wanted: With the industries in Bohemia and the agriculture in Hungary, many thought that Austria was not sustainable. In addition, the peace treaties of Versailles and St. Germain (for Germany and Austria, respectively) forced Austria to pay fines as reparation to the Entente. It sold its navy, as access to the sea was lost to Italy and Serbia-Croatia-Slovenia (SHS) anyway.

Austria claimed all territories of the former Empire that had a German-speaking majority - but the Entente prohibited this in many cases. In several provinces there were attempts to spit from Austria and join other countries (Vorarlberg to Switzerland, Tyrol to Italy to re-establish unity as parts of Tyrol had been "paid" to Italy for changing the sides; Salzburg to Germany). The "Anschluss" (merging) with Germany was prohibited by the peace treaty and even the name Deutschösterreich had to be changed into "Republik Österreich" (Republic of Austria) in 1919.

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Further Reading

"Austrian History in less than 1000 words"

"A Jewish History of Austria"

A Complete List of all Austrian Monarchs