21 APRIL, 1917: Anarchy in the Ukraine

You couldn’t say it was exactly world-shattering news at the time.  It couldn’t really compete for headlines with the monstrous Allied offensives in full cry on the Western Front, accompanied by the crowd-pleasing dogfights of Bloody April and the Red Baron’s surge to fame.  From anywhere West of the Rhine, it hardly seemed important compared with the rising crescendo of submarine warfare, the exotic dramas of British advances through the Middle East, the diplomatic fallout from Washington’s momentous move to war, or reports of mayhem in St. Petersburg as Lenin joined the crowded ranks of revolutionaries returned from exile.  What with all that and more kicking off at around the same time, it’s hardly surprising nobody in the West made too much fuss about the successful conclusion, on 21 April 1917, of the first Ukrainian National Congress.  A century on, nothing’s changed.

What little attention Western academics have paid to the Eastern Front over the decades has tended to view it from the perspective of the major empires involved, understandably enough given that most available source material comes from imperial bureaucracies, especially the German bureaucracy.  So our standard Western view of the First World War skates over its enormous importance to those countries – Georgia, Ukraine, Poland, Belarus and the Baltic states – that stood on the western frontiers of the Russian Empire and would one day form an inner ring of Soviet satellites.  In the Ukraine, for instance, the Great War was on one hand a social and environmental catastrophe, as the country became a battlefield under military occupation and conscripted Ukrainians fought for both sides, but was on the other hand a golden opportunity that transformed the idea of national independence into fleeting reality.

Ignoring the current battle for its eastern territories, modern Ukraine comprises the western majority of what was, in 1914, the Russian imperial province of Kiev, along with parts of what was then southern Poland, some of it under Austro-Hungarian control. Nationalist ideas and organisations had taken hold among academics, businessmen and politicians in pre-War Kiev, aiming at greater regional autonomy and promotion of the Ukrainian language, but they were efficiently suppressed in one of the most militarily controlled sectors of the Russian Empire and had little impact on the rest of the country. Controls were tightened further under wartime conditions, but everything changed when the February Revolution of March 1917 toppled the Russian Tsar (8 March, 1917: False Start).

Ukraine as envisaged by the Rada in 1917. Big, huh…

News travelled fast by telegraph in March 1917, and views moved like lightning through the conduit of a Russian Army consumed by revolutionary turmoil at every level. On 17 March, only five days after proclamation of the new Provisional Government in St. Petersburg, Ukrainian politicians, workers, military agitators, businessmen, students, bureaucrats and churchmen came together in Kiev to found the Central Council of Ukraine. More commonly known as the Central Rada, it was led as chairman by historian and nationalist activist Mikhailo Hrushevsky, and wasted no time testing the St. Petersburg government’s avowed liberal principles.

Mykhailo Hrushevskyi, among the finest beards of the War so far.

After issuing a declaration of support for the Provisional Government on 22 March, the Rada began establishing itself as St. Petersburg’s rival for authority over the Russian Ukraine. Hrushevsky, essentially a social democrat, guided the Rada in pursuit of autonomy as a prelude to full independence, and spent his first weeks in office building a wider mandate for its authority, organising delegates from the many elements represented by the Rada, and anyone else willing to participate, into a national congress.

Seven hundred voting delegates – along with 200 non-voting observers and some 600 guests – attended the National Congress that convened in Kiev on 19 April.  The Congress elected 150 delegates to form a new Rada that was in effect a governing parliament, and confirmed Hrushevsky as its chairman, with leaders of the two main Ukrainian political parties as his deputies.  Most significantly, the new Rada included representatives from provincial authorities, and from the socialist workers’ organisations and soviets that were surging into life in every urban area of any size, extending its writ beyond the Kiev region for the first time.  By the time the Congress dissolved on 21 April, it had transformed the Central Council into a provisional government that would lead the Ukraine towards tentative and short-lived independence.

During the next few weeks, the Rada worked to establish its bona fides as a legitimate national government.  It elected a ‘small council’ of thirty members, including representatives of most political groupings, to serve as a cabinet, and on 10 June it declared national autonomy for the Ukraine.  Later that month, in an attempt to widen its influence beyond Kiev, the Rada was expanded to include 130 representatives from soldiers’ councils and 133 from the peasantry.

Peasants made up the vast majority of the Ukraine’s 30 million people.  Principally concerned with peaceful subsistence, they gave the Rada important if somewhat uncommitted support, and presented no serious threat to its authority.  Soldiers’ councils, or soviets, were much more dangerous to the Rada.  In control of most Russian Army units in the Ukraine, they were inclined to preach socialist revolution and generally looked to St. Petersburg for authority, as did many socialist groups in urban areas.  The Rada’s attempt to incorporate the soviets, which was only partly successful and had little impact outside the north of the country, reflected its greatest challenge in the months after the Tsar’s demise – how to achieve peaceful co-existence with a Russian Provisional Government that still claimed political control over the Ukraine.

A compromise was reached in July, when the Russian government agreed to recognise the Rada and defer any binding decisions concerning the Ukraine’s autonomy or sovereignty.  The deal prevented any immediate, mutually unproductive conflict but otherwise solved nothing.  With Kerensky’s Russian regime being forced further and further to the left in order to survive, Ukrainian soviets becoming more radical with every passing day and the Central Powers waiting in the wings if the Russian Army collapsed, the Rada government could do little more than survive through a summer of rising instability, maintaining an appearance of cohesion in its Kiev power base amid seismic socio-political shifts on all sides.

For all its rapid reaction to events, impressive attempts to promote unity and efficient creation of ‘national’ institutions, the Rada’s provisional government was not long for this world.  Viewed by revolutionary socialists as a liberal, bourgeois enemy of the workers, and dismissed as such by the Bolshevik regime after Russia’s October Revolution, it was effectively overthrown in January 1918 by a rival soviet government based in Kharkov.  The Rada responded by declaring Ukrainian independence from the new Soviet Union on 22 January and making a separate peace with the Central Powers, which had been providing diplomatic and financial support since the spring.  This treaty, signed on 9 February and known in Germany as the Brotfrieden (‘bread peace’), left the Rada as a powerless puppet government and ushered in a long period of violent misery for the Ukrainian people.

Signing the ‘bread peace’. Bad idea.

On the positive side, the Central Powers granted Ukrainian control of the Cholm region, a northern province that was also claimed by an independent Poland.  The concession ruined Vienna’s hopes of getting Poland to accept an Austro-Hungarian protectorate, but the urgent need for Ukrainian food supplies was seen as more important.  In return, the Rada invited the German and Austro-Hungarian Armies to occupy Russian Ukraine, authorised their immediate seizure of grain and other supplies on a vast scale, and accepted German Field Marshal Eichhorn as effective military dictator of Ukraine and the Crimea.

Eichhorn’s ruthless attempts to meet the colossal demands for food laid down by the Third Supreme Command in Berlin brought severe hardship to rural Ukrainians, while his imposition of forced labour programmes to increase agricultural production fed rising nationalist unrest in the countryside.  By the time Eichhorn was assassinated by nationalists in Kiev, on 30 July 1918, military occupation was the only force keeping a lid on a chaotic cauldron of revolutionary turmoil, and the collapse of Germany in November brought anarchy in the Ukraine.

During the next three years fourteen different governments claimed to represent the Ukraine, and a state of civil war was only calmed by a fairly secure Bolshevik takeover in 1921.  From the that point the Ukraine became part of the USSR, and though the new Soviet Republic permitted some nationalist and peasant representation, no echo of the Rada’s legacy survived the brutal repression of Stalinism in the 1930s.

So why bother commemorating the birth of something that can only be described as a short-lived failure?  Because the Ukraine is now a sovereign state, in part constructed from the blueprints laid down by the Rada in 1917 and under severe pressure a century later. These days I think we can all agree that its future matters to ours, so on the grounds that it’s good to understand things that matter, here’s to the flawed godfathers of Ukrainian nationhood, and here’s to sneaking a bit of the Ukraine’s history, however sketchy and blind to its many controversies, into our heritage.

13 APRIL, 1917: Long Arm Of The War

A century ago, after a prolonged period of recuperation and planning, the Western Front was back in full-on, bloodletting action. In line with Berlin’s decision to focus resources on the escalation of submarine warfare while remaining poised to exploit fallout from Russia’s revolutionary chaos in the east, the German Army in France had taken a small step backwards to occupy carefully prepared defensive positions.  In line with recent tradition, the French and British armies on the Western Front had chosen to hurl themselves at those positions in the same northern and southern sectors of the front that had been their targets since the beginning of 1915, employing a tweaked and expanded version of the same tactics that had failed every time.

As usual, the Allied attacks were launched in the belief that final victory was just a well-aimed push away, but this time the belief was a little more desperate and a little less universal.  While politicians clung gratefully to French Army c-in-c Nivelle’s assertion that his version of breakthrough tactics would effectively end the War in 48 hours, they were forced to override opposition from many senior commanders in both armies.  I’ve talked about the build-up to the Allied spring offensives on the Western Front before (12 February, 1917: Hope, Fantasy and Fear), and on 9 April they finally got underway, when the BEF launched its opening assault in the northern sector.

This was the start of the Battle of Arras (sometimes known as the Second Battle of Arras), which encompassed various smaller battles (beginning with the Battle of Vimy Ridge), and which formed the northern prong of the Allied Artois and Champagne Offensive (often known as the Nivelle Offensive).  If that seems unclear, bear in mind it’s a simplification and then let’s move on.

Vimy Ridge – you know what happens next.

The Nivelle Offensive was destined to be the usual disaster and its centenaries (again beginning with the genuinely heroic, largely Canadian and distinctly minor victory at Vimy Ridge) are destined to keep the Anglophone heritage industry busy for the foreseeable future.  There’s no real need for me to bang on about the combinations of bad weather, bad strategy, bad tactics and bad luck that turned the spring of 1917 into another miserable confirmation that contemporary methods of attack were no match for efficient, trench-based defence, so I won’t.  Instead, let’s take a look at South America, because on 11 April 1917 Brazil broke off diplomatic relations with Germany, and Bolivia followed suit two days later.

The standard line on Latin America during the First World War is that the flight of European money and influence during the conflict opened the door for American business interests, bolstered by money, military force and diplomatic pressure, to gain control over much the continent’s exportable economic output.  This was true enough, broadly speaking, but sweeping generalisations applied to whole continents – like the ones about all African music or all European food – tend to be short on nuance and riddled with exceptions.  US economic encroachment in Latin America was primarily driven by trade winds, so it was directly concerned with securing all approaches to the new Panama Canal and focused on exploitation of small states with easy access to sea lanes; the kind of countries that could be easily coerced by the dispatch a few marines and plenty of dollars.  Much of Central America, the Caribbean and the northern coast of South America were targetted accordingly, but for very different reasons neither Brazil nor Bolivia came into these categories.

Brazil, a country with plenty of accessible coastline, rich in resources for exploitation and a system of government ripe for the marines and dollars treatment, was simply too big to be an easy target for American dominance, as were its neighbours Argentina and Chile. As the region’s most powerful states, the three of them make for an interesting subset within the world at war, pursuing lines of alliance and development that would shape the continent’s turbulent twentieth-century history, so they’re worth a post of their own another day.

On the other hand Bolivia was small, possessed valuable natural resources and was dominated by an almost feudal political system that could be controlled from the centre – but it didn’t meet the accessibility criterion, having been landlocked since the loss or sale of territory to its more powerful neighbours in the late 19th century. Partly because of its relative isolation, and partly thanks to the talents of a particularly acquisitive ruling elite, the country faced no wartime threat to its political or economic independence – but that didn’t protect it from the War’s destabilising effects.

How Bolivia ended up landlocked…

Bolivia’s otherwise agricultural economy was built on abundant tin and silver resources, and during the late 19th century its politics were run by competing oligarchies of tin and silver barons, both principally concerned with maximising their wealth and content to treat the native population as forced labour.  Promises of reform had won some native support for the Liberal Party, representing the La Paz-based tin industry, which had seized power from the silver barons of the Conservative Party, based in the city of Sucre, in 1899. The Liberals still ran a government tightly controlled by the presidency in 1917, by which time they had established La Paz as the national capital and become a lot richer on the back of a tin boom based on European shortages during the early 1900s, but had done nothing to improve the miserable condition of the workforce.

Foreign investment poured into Bolivia during the tin boom, but wealthy Bolivian entrepreneurs quickly learned to exploit the dependence of overseas smelting industries on Bolivian tin.  The process of putting the tin industry back into Bolivian hands was well underway by 1917 and would be complete by the early 1920s – but though the ruling elite remained prosperous during wartime, the long-range economic effects of world war, especially disruption of trade with Europe, were forcing socio-political changes that threatened its hold on power.

A long slump in the silver trade helped keep the Conservatives weak and divided, but the dip in general trade with Europe before and after the outbreak of War, along with a series of droughts that hit agricultural production, brought a third, elite-based political force into play, as a faction committed to territorial expansion broke away from the Liberals to form a Republican Party.  Rapid growth of the tin mining sector, and associated construction of roads and railways, meanwhile bred rising social tensions as native workers moved into cities, where they became more organised and more militant.  With strikes beginning to disrupt the mining sector, the Republicans making appeals for support to workers’ organisations, and a presidential election due in May 1917, the ruling Liberals were understandably keen to promote economic recovery through a resumption of normal trade patterns.

Ismael Montes, President of Bolivia between 1913 and 1917.  All moustache and no chops.

German declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917 had precisely the opposite effect, and made trade with the American continent, above all with great market of the USA, even more important to Bolivia.  Under the circumstances, the US declaration of war against Germany offered the ruling oligarchy a free hit, which it took by severing diplomatic relations on 13 April.

The move was a no-brainer, offering a chance to display solidarity with the USA and to mop up the remnants of extensive pre-War German investment in the country, as well as leaving Bolivia poised to become an official belligerent should it need a voice at the peace conference.  It was also good local PR, and a sense of better times on the horizon helped the Liberals win the 1917 election, but it made no difference to Bolivia’s immediate economic problems.

Nothing Bolivian leaders could do was ever going to interfere with the tsunami progress of world war economics, and better times were too long coming for the tin barons.  Two decades of relatively stable misery for the Bolivian people came to an end in 1920, when a bloodless coup by the Republicans ushered in a long period of upheaval underpinned by a multi-faceted popular struggle for social reform.

The Bolivian government’s dip into world-war diplomacy involved no pressure from foreign powers, but was yet another case of a ruling elite’s opportunistic self-interest disguised as national interest.  Bolivia’s behaviour was more like that of Bulgaria or Romania than of Cuba or Panama, which had declared war against Germany on 7 April in their capacity as what amounted to US client states.  As with almost every state in any way involved in the First World War, those behind Bolivia’s involvement were destined to disappointment in its outcome, and couldn’t stop the ripples from distant battlefields contributing to fatal cracks in a political system built on repression.

Giving human and civil rights a small shove from a great distance isn’t such a big deal, and war-related changes didn’t conjure up any happy endings (or many happy intermissions) for the people of Bolivia – but even that has probably made a more significant contribution to modern times than the springtime slaughter on the Western Front, and it’s definitely less depressingly repetitive.

6 APRIL, 1917: Woodrow Who?

There is a book, published in 1930, called 1066 and All That.  It’s a very silly book, taking the piss out of British history with a bunch of childish jokes strung together by a couple of failed Oxford students, but it does come to a slightly sombre conclusion.  In 1917, it announces, America became ‘top nation’ and so history came to an end.  I mention this because, although nothing in the universe has a precise starting date and I guess history is still in progress, on 6 April 1917 the United States entered the First World War on the side of the Allies – and from that day to this nobody in the world has seriously doubted the USA’s position as the most powerful nation on Earth.

Once the USA had committed its economic clout and manpower to the First World War, it was a matter of when rather than if the Allies would overpower Germany and its increasingly feeble partners. Once the USA was part of the War, it couldn’t be kept out of any future peacemaking process, and once the USA had sent armed forces across the Atlantic it could never again claim or practice a disinterested separation from foreign affairs.  The ‘American century’ had begun and as it ticks past the hundred-year mark I’d say we’re still not sure how it’s going.

There’s obviously a lot more to say on the subject, and plenty to say about the Wilson administration’s final acceptance that war couldn’t be avoided, but it’s pretty well covered by the commemoration and heritage industries, not to mention a powerful posse of scholars and journalists. There’s no real excuse for any literate person from a first-world background not being aware that 6 April 1917 was a fundamental turning point in his or her modern history, and if you’re not aware of it consider yourself told.

On the other hand, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, modern history meant different things to different parts of the world in the early twentieth century.  Important changes were being forced on all sorts of people living outside the bubble of mass communication and mechanisation that defined the richest countries.  What mattered to their history was important, wasn’t necessarily in tune with our standard narrative and tends to be ignored by modern reproductions of that narrative.

April 1917 was, for instance, an important time in the history of the Gold Coast, but that had nothing much to do with the birth of American geopolitics and much more to do with an increasingly desperate British Empire giving up on its first big attempt to recruit native troops for fighting outside western Africa.  Explanation is in order, beginning with the basics.

The name Gold Coast was originally (and obviously) applied to the coastal region of West Africa that provided Europeans with gold. Like the Ivory Coast to the west and the Slave Coast to the east, it was easily accessible to 18th-century European shipping, and had attracted incursions from Portuguese, Danish, Swedish, Dutch, Prussian and British colonists by the early nineteenth.  By the mid-nineteenth century bribery and bullying had enabled the world’s undisputed ‘top nation’, Britain, to remove the competition, and establish a multinational (or in imperial terms multi-tribal) Gold Coast colony that stretched far inland and would eventually become modern Ghana.

 

The Gold Coast was hardly one nation in 1914, but the green, yellow and mauve bits were one British colony.

Colonial administration in the Gold Coast followed the pattern established in India and employed across much of Britain’s African empire, turning local rulers into clients and letting them get on with the traditional business of local government, but keeping them under very firm personal control.  This had the great advantage of saving the British lots of money and resources that would otherwise be expended in colonial policing, along with the useful side effect of leaving much of the native population unaware that colonisation was taking place, and therefore inclined to carry on blaming the same old leaders for their troubles.

Although the northern Gold Coast interior, home to the Asante people, remained troublesome and occasionally violent into the twentieth century – more a product of internal African tensions than any colonial pressure – the British were generally able to develop their colonial interests in peace, extracting metals, diamonds, ivory, pepper, timber, cocoa and grain, along with gold, and building a trading infrastructure of roads and railways from the interior to the ports.  By 1914 British administrators were referring to the ‘sheep-like docility’ of Gold Coast natives, and on the outbreak of war only some 3,000 imperial troops and police were deployed to administer a population of about 1.6 million.

The War had a generally, though not critically depressing effect on the Gold Coast economy, which enjoyed a minor surge in demand for cocoa but otherwise suffered from the conflict’s disruption of global sea trade and attendant price fluctuations – but economic uncertainties had little immediate social impact before 1917.  Local chiefs continued to give support to the colonial regime for a variety of internal reasons, usually involving their own security or territorial ambitions, and loyally provided troops for campaigns against German forces in neighbouring Togoland and Cameroon. Meanwhile the colony’s educated, largely urban African elite and its mouthpiece, the Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society, continued to profit from collaboration with the British and to exploit any opportunities for increased influence thrown up by wartime personnel shortages.

Broadly speaking, most local leaders and imperial administrators regarded the War as a faraway irrelevance, a view shared in spades by those natives aware that it was taking place – but the colonial government was nevertheless afraid that the inconveniences of an economic downturn could undermine popular acceptance of the white man’s invincibility.  Careful to avoid policies likely to trigger unrest, it ignored European demands for tighter quality control over cocoa exports, refused to expel immigrants from neighbouring French colonies, where natives were regarded as French citizens and conscripted accordingly, and rejected all attempts by an increasingly manpower-starved UK government to impose conscription on the colony.   Although some of the northern territories brought under largely military control in the previous couple of decades did see uprisings against chiefs seen as British agents, this Afro-centric approach kept most of the Gold Coast relatively peaceful during the War’s first two years.

Government policy couldn’t disguise the wartime reduction of imperial resources available for colonial work.  This forced the closure of fortresses in the northern hinterland, brought a 30 percent reduction in the number of troops and police available by early 1917, and did exactly what the colonists feared most, feeding a growing popular belief that the white empire’s days were numbered. Under the circumstances, the British Army recruitment campaign launched by the colonial government in January 1917 was a very bad idea.

Given the Empire’s desperate manpower needs after the carnage of 1916’s Western Front offensives (and a clamour in the British press for conscription of native populations that could be heard loud and clear in the colonial capital, Accra), the Gold Coast administration had little choice but to attempt the recruitment drive.  It went about the job in the only way it knew how.  Local rulers were told to provide recruits, and left to do so in any way they saw fit, while the rich folks of the Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society – which had previously been useful in encouraging contributions to various voluntary war funds – were allowed to spearhead attempts to attract volunteers by individual persuasion. The results were divisive and universally unsatisfactory.

Local chiefs and other rulers needed young men for their own communities and while some were slow to provide recruits, many more simply bribed or coerced their least useful subjects into joining the British Army.  Colonial administrators recognised that this amounted to conscription, or in some cases forced labour, and they bemoaned the low quality of recruits.  They also complained that many refused to fight or deserted during training, but they felt no need to interfere with what could be dismissed as local methods, particularly since they weren’t picking up recruits by any other means.  Details are scant, but the general picture seems to have been of a population that regarded going away to fight in a distant war as a ridiculous idea, and that wasn’t about to do anything recommended by the Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society.

The recruitment drive was abandoned as a failure in April, but would be repeated the following year with similarly unfortunate results. Although Gold Coast troops were recruited to take part in the British East African campaign, alongside greater numbers from other British West African colonies, and would be on the verge of deployment in Palestine when the War ended, the main effects of the drives were to dilute the authority of white rule and along with it the authority of local rulers.  Local chiefs, particularly in the largely autonomous countryside, lost support as the agents of recruitment, and lost status as recruitment fuelled popular belief that the British Empire was running out of resources.

 

Gold Coast troops in East Africa – a long, long way from home and hating it…

The primary wartime forces undermining the traditional rural power structures upon which Gold Coast colonial rule was built were economic instability and connected phenomena – like the concentration of wealth and labour resources in the main ports, and the 1916 issue of paper money to cover imperial cash flow problems – but the British Empire’s clumsy scramble for manpower served as an emblem for their decline.  As such it helped alter the mindset of an entire people, and helped hand the colony’s future to the educated elite represented by the Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society.

As political influence came to depend more and more on access to economic and population hubs, wealthy urban natives were sufficiently in touch with the wider world to be influenced by liberal talk of post-War self-determination.  By the time the War ended the Gold Coast educated elite and the press it controlled were expressing desires for equality of civil opportunity, increased native control over economic resources and political representation. The Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society was meanwhile reorganising to become a political organisation in pursuit of those desires.  It would evolve during the 1920s into the kernel of a nationalist movement dedicated largely to the interests of social elites and destined to grow steadily during the next four decades.

By then, of course, the presence of the USA at the post-War peace table seemed important to at least some future Ghanaians, but in April 1917 Woodrow Wilson really didn’t matter in West Africa.

31 MARCH, 1917: The Right Charlie

A century ago today, a secret proposal for peace talks reached the French president in the form of a letter from the Austro-Hungarian emperor, Karl I.  The diplomatic grapevine had been alive with whispers of Vienna’s willingness to negotiate since Karl’s coronation as King of Hungary at the end of 1916, when he had confirmed his reputation as a peace-loving moderate by promising to seek a settlement. Though evidently well intentioned, the peace proposal was a clumsy, half-baked and naive attempt to end a conflict that was patently wrecking the Austro-Hungarian Empire beyond salvation, and achieved nothing positive.  That rather summed up poor old Karl’s brief reign.

To be fair, few modern monarchs have come to their thrones in more difficult circumstances.  Karl’s great-uncle, the Emperor Franz-Josef, had been occupying the imperial throne for 68 years when he died in November 1916, so a sense of major change came with the territory. Karl, who was a cavalry officer when he became heir presumptive on the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, spent about nine months at court between the summer of 1915 and May 1916, but was otherwise attached to field units and came to power with little training for the job.  He inherited an empire in almost every kind of trouble, mired in ghastly military deadlock on two fronts, well on the way to economic collapse and hurtling towards social breakdown – but while his brand of tentative liberalism was enough to alienate conservatives, and to provide encouragement for the many forces demanding change, it never came close to satisfying anyone.

Karl’s reform attempts kept pouring water on oil fires.  He appointed a series of reformist prime ministers in Austria, beginning with agriculture minister Heinrich Clam-Martinic in December 1916, and pursued the same line in Hungary after the removal of the stubbornly nationalist Count Tisza the following May, but none of them impressed separatist or republican opinion and none lasted long.  Karl’s recall of the imperial parliament, the Reichsrat, merely confirmed the paralysing depth of national and political divisions within the Empire, while his decision to release the Empire’s most high-profile political prisoners served only to strengthen his opponents.

The new regime did try to rationalise an economy that was manifestly failing to meet the challenge of total war, but development of an elaborate new bureaucratic structure during 1917 achieved nothing in practice, and arms production for 1918 fell below 1914 levels.  The King-Emperor also increased his influence over the military by putting an end to Conrad’s catastrophic tenure as Army chief of staff (14 May, 1916: Bad Hand? All In!), and treating his replacement, the altogether more pliant General Arz von Straussenberg, as a glorified personal advisor.  That backfired when Karl went on to ban duels, flogging, bombing of civilian targets and most use of poison gas, a set of highly commendable reforms that outraged most senior Army commanders.

Allied blockade, German demands and Hungarian hoarding meant food shortages were a big problem in Vienna by 1917.

Despite the obvious onset of imperial entropy, Karl still saw some small chance that the monarchy could survive, at the head of what he envisioned as a multinational federation, if he could succeed in bringing peace to the Empire and claiming the credit.  The idea chimed with the strongly pro-Allied views of his influential French-Italian wife, Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma, and Karl’s first attempt to save the world, the proposal for negotiations received by President Poincaré on 31 March 1917, was delivered through her family.  It destined to go horribly wrong, of course.

What became known as the Sixtus Affair began in late March as preliminary talks between French officials and Princess Zita’s brothers, Belgian Army officers Sixtus and Xavier Bourbon-Parma. Apparently sanctioned by Austro-Hungarian foreign minister Czernin, a figure generally known for his clear pro-German views, talks were sufficiently encouraging to prompt the more formal approach to Poincaré, but from that moment Austrian hopes faded fast.  With no sign that Vienna could exert the slightest influence over German determination to fight on, or that Austria-Hungary was ready to risk a unilateral arrangement, the letter to Poincaré was simply ignored by Allied leaders.

Sixtus, Xavier and their French mother. The Swiss-born princes were considered too noble to be allowed into a French Army still very big on the revolutionary principles of the 1790s, so they fought for Belgium.

They were right, and Karl knew it.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire was by now dependent for survival on German military and economic support.  If the German Third Supreme Command, already eying his regime with acute suspicion, were to catch him feeding at the peace trough, support was sure to be withdrawn or expanded to the point of conquest, either of which meant curtains for the Empire. Suitably cowed, Karl made no further attempts to make peace with the Allies before the early summer of 1918, by which time it was far too late because the Sixtus Affair had come back to bite him.

Sending a secret document to the enemy without telling your allies is a pretty obvious hostage to fortune, and the peace bid of March 1917 gifted the Allies an opportunity to disrupt relations between Berlin and Vienna at a time of their choosing.  French premier Georges Clemenceau, the wily, aggressive nationalist who took office in November 1917 on a platform of war to the finish (and of whom plenty more another day), chose the spring of 1918 to reveal records of the Sixtus proposals, and achieved just the effect he was looking for.  The German Third Supreme Command reacted by forcing Czernin’s dismissal and imposing formal economic and military union between Germany and Austria-Hungary in May, at which point Karl lost any hope of significantly influencing, let alone controlling the collapse of his Empire.  The rest is a history of small central European countries dominated by powerful German and Russian neighbours.

Whatever Karl I tried to achieve, and no matter how enlightened his earnest pursuit of peaceful power sharing may appear to modern eyes, in 1917 he appeared weak-willed and volatile to everyone except other moderate liberals.  Despised by the right and the left, by diehard imperialists and committed nationalists, and with no Habsburg institutions left to defend his reputation after an early death – from pneumonia on 1 April 1922, while in exile on the island of Madeira – he was an easy target for central European commentators heavily influenced by the political extremes of the mid-twentieth century.

Popular anglophone history hasn’t really moved on from there. It still generally dismisses the last Habsburg emperor as a dithering weakling (and calls him Charles I), but in doing so reveals its blindness to perspective.  While it would be ridiculous to portray Karl’s short reign as any kind of success (despite the longstanding campaign by some Austrian Catholics to have him canonised), it might be more appropriate to commemorate him with reference to Mikhail Gorbachev – the last ruler of another empire, a man who met similar problems with similar responses, and a figure consistently glorified by the same heritage salesmen.

Who? Me?