After more than four years of centenary showbiz, the modern heritage industry is still pumping out its trench-based, worm’s-eye view of the First World War, but it does occasionally peep over the sandbags and notice that empires were falling or rising.
Hunt around a little and it’s not so hard to find popular accounts discussing the fall of the Romanovs and the rise of the USSR, or the fall of the upstart Hohenzollerns and its impact on Germany’s future. The rise of the USA and Japan to imperial status, albeit in rather different ways, has some resonance for modern media, particularly in those two countries but also across a world alert to the roots of the Second World War, while the state of twenty-first century geopolitics (and the outrage of Armenians) has meant that even the Ottoman Empire’s disappearance attracts a hint of heritage profile.
The common selling point that earns these empires, whether waxing or waning, at least a modicum of recognition by posterity is their direct connection to the most sensationally earth-shaking stories of the last hundred years. The same can’t really be said of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was in the process of a more complete disappearance and has been largely ignored by the rest of the world ever since. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years trying to highlight the many ways in which the First World War shaped the future, our present, but today marks the centenary of a last, doomed attempt to preserve an empire, and with it a dynasty, that had helped shape Europe’s centuries-long transition from mediaeval to modern.
This isn’t the place for a potted history of the Habsburgs, and the map below is worth a thousand words, but the dynasty had ruled over vast tracts of Europe for hundreds of years, preserving and extending its power by the traditional (if ultimately unhealthy) method of marrying cousins to create kings. The decline of the Holy Roman Empire as a geopolitical force, along with the loss of its possessions in Spain and the Low Countries, had significantly reduced the family’s power base by 1914, but the Austro-Hungarian monarchy still held sway over a globally significant chunk of central and eastern Europe. By October 1918, with its economy atrophied, its politics in a state of revolutionary turmoil and powerful enemies at the gates, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was on life support, and on 16 October the last Habsburg emperor made a last, desperate bid to transform the wreckage into something sustainable.
The young Emperor, Karl I, had taken the throne in November 1916, too late for his moderate reformism to satisfy separatist elements already bent on full independence. With no other course of action available, short of handing control of the Empire to Germany, Karl had clung to his reformist principles throughout the next two years, and in July 1917 he had appointed a prime minister with similar views.
Baron Max Hussarek von Heinlein – let’s just call him Hussarek – was a law professor who had served as minister of education under successive governments since 1911. Committed to finding a constitutional means of reconciling Czech, Slav and Polish ambitions within a monarchic framework, Hussarek came up with a plan that earned royal approval and formed the basis of an imperial declaration released on 16 October. Known as the October Manifesto, the declaration proposed turning the Empire into a federation of small autonomous states, each given its own representative parliament, with the exception that Hungary was to remain a unitary kingdom. The sop to Hungary was in effect an offer to spare that country the political consequences of defeat, at least in the short term, but while the Manifesto was never radical enough for separatist groups it was far too radical for the conservative elite still running Hungary.
Hungarian premier Alexander Wekerle, an elderly conservative appointed to protect the interests of the dominant Hungarian landed class, had been no friend to Vienna since taking office in August 1917. Forced by Karl (in his capacity as King of Hungary) to present some degree of constitutional reform to the Hungarian parliament – which rejected the proposals in late 1917 – Wekerle had retaliated by pushing demands for Hungarian control over half the Imperial army and by giving support to the increasingly popular republican movement inside Hungary. He reacted to the October Manifesto by rejecting it and threatening an embargo on vital food exports to Austria if Karl pursued it further.
That was that for the October Manifesto, dead in the water after about two days – but although the failure came as no surprise to anyone, it did function as a signal for the Empire’s final disintegration. Wekerle declared an independent Hungary on 19 October but, having neglected to abolish the monarchy, he was dismissed by Karl four days later and retired into private life, leaving Hungary prey to revolutionary forces that would define the country’s immediate future. Hussarek also abandoned politics after his own resignation on 27 October, and his federal mirage evaporated with proclamations of independence by Czechoslovak and Yugoslav nationalists on 28 and 29 October respectively.
Without the means to force political control, because any remaining loyal troops were defending the Danube frontier or the Italian Front, Karl had no cards left to play. He would agree an armistice with the Allies on 3 November, and abdicate on 11 November, but both were gestures after the fact. His empire had already ceased to exist.
When the Austro-Hungarian Empire died, it left little to remember it by. Imperial records are scarce, most having been destroyed by incoming regimes or outgoing officials, while central European historians have tended, understandably enough, to focus on histories of their own nations rather than that of the perceived oppressor dynasty. They have a point. Taken across several hundred years of almost unparalleled power in Europe, the Habsburgs hardly stand out as a boon to the societies they dominated. Relentlessly inbred and almost exclusively concerned with the family’s status, Habsburg rulers sponsored some interesting art and plenty of exploration, but otherwise tended to feature as major obstacles to pretty much everything the modern world sees as progress.
It seems fitting enough that when this testament to blood as the arbiter of human affairs finally left the stage during the second half of October 1918, it went out with the October Manifesto, which definitely qualified as a whimper. I’m less convinced that its destruction, a moment of belated triumph for modern values extracted from the disaster of the First World War, should be ignored a century later.