Austria and Hungary tend to escape the discredit they deserve for their roles in the First World War. This is largely because they have since become modest, periodically oppressed nations with no pretensions to global clout. While Britain, Germany, Russia, France and Italy all remained important actors in the post-War geopolitical narrative, and the Ottoman Empire retained at least a semblance of religious coherence after its collapse in 1918, imperial disintegration instantly transformed Austria and Hungary from world powers into small-time bystanders. At the same time, the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire entailed mass destruction of its institutional records, and that encouraged a generalised denial of responsibility for its actions among its various populations. In other words, circumstances and the self-interest of survivors combined to promote the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s quiet erasure from modern popular history.
That’s a shame, both because the Empire is central to the developmental history of modern Europe, and because Austria-Hungary’s wartime story was wild and crazy stuff. Today marks the centenary of the assassination of Austrian premier Count von Stürgkh by Friedrich Adler, the son of Austrian socialist leader Viktor Adler, an event that summed up the Empire’s condition quite nicely.
Karl Count von Stürgkh had just turned fifty-two, and had made his name as a trenchant conservative during two years as Austrian education minister, when he was appointed Austrian minister-president in November 1911. He had since dedicated himself to maintenance of the Empire under autocratic, Germanic government, and his policies had provoked persistent opposition from socialists and separatist nationalists, above all from Czechs. His response had been to suspend the Austrian parliament in March 1914, after which he ruled by royal decree, a move that had the predictable effect of driving opposition away from institutions and onto the streets.
Once war broke out, Stürgkh introduced rigid press censorship and restriction of public assembly rights, while allowing the military to infiltrate civil bureaucracy and policing. His approach drove opposition closer to open revolt but was seen as insufficiently forceful by extreme militarists, a powerful influence at the Emperor’s court and a group that could have given the Russian nobility lessons in rabid conservatism. He had therefore become thoroughly unpopular on all sides, but was still rigidly attached to policies that promoted exactly the imperial break-up he was determined to avoid, when he was shot and killed by Friedrich Adler in the dining room of a Viennese hotel.
Born into a wealthy Jewish family, Friedrich Adler had been a physicist and mathematician, a close friend of Albert Einstein at the University of Zurich, before abandoning academic life in 1911 and moving to Vienna to work as a journalist in the cause of socialist revolution. His father, Victor Adler, was Vienna’s best-known social democrat, a major figure in the Second International and an advocate of federalism and autonomy for the peoples of the Empire.
Adler Senior’s passionate commitment to unification of the Empire’s various socialist groups had fallen foul of Czech refusal to operate as anything other than a national movement, and of his own position in support of Austria-Hungary’s war effort. While Victor Adler saw the War as a struggle against the greater evil of imperial Russian expansionism, Friedrich and the left wing held to the pre-War socialist view of international conflict as combat between oppressors fought by the oppressed. The two squabbled loud and often over the matter, and at thirty-seven Friedrich evidently retained a teenager’s love for angry drama – or so some Viennese commentators concluded when unable to find a better explanation for his extraordinary resort to murder on 21 October 1916.
If the younger Adler expected Stürgkh’s violent death to spark any change in the government’s rigidly conservative position, let alone any kind of revolution, he was naive, pretty much out on his own and destined to be disappointed. Stürgkh was replaced by the more moderate Körber, while political and separatist agitation continued to escalate all over the Empire, but contemporaries recognised that the real agents of change in Austria-Hungary that autumn were a bad harvest and the death, in November, of the elderly Emperor Franz Josef.
Critical food shortages multiplied the problems facing a government already coping with extreme military over-extension, attacks on its eastern frontiers, the collapse of most non-military industry and strident bids for autonomy from all its component nations. Under these circumstances the vaguely liberal instincts of the new Emperor, Karl I – which did bring a shift in the monarchy’s stance, from diehard to dithering – did nothing to prolong the regime’s survival. Amid this tidal wave of change swamping the political landscape, the sensational killing of an unpopular premier created no more than a ripple so brief and insignificant that it didn’t even do serious damage to the career of either Adler.
Friedrich was found guilty of the murder in 1917, after toying with an insanity defence, but Emperor Karl avoided creation of a martyr by commuting the death sentence to eighteen years in prison. Like other politically connected prisoners, Friedrich was released just before the Armistice, and he emerged as a committed social democrat, going on to play a significant role in the creation of post-War Austria. His father meanwhile continued to work within the existing political system, rejected calls for a Bolshevik-style revolution in Austria, and became foreign minister of a provisional, post-imperial Austrian government in October 1918. By then he was one of the most influential voices calling for post-War ‘re-unification’ of Austria and Germany (subsequently vetoed by the victorious Allies), but he had long been a sick man and died on Armistice Day, 1918.
Stürgkh and the two Adlers were all major players in the political maelstrom at the centre of the wartime Austro-Hungarian Empire. Like those of the military in general, the Emperor and his courtiers, their various actions and ideas proved completely powerless against the entropy unleashed once political and economic norms had broken down across the Empire as a whole. I’m bothering to commemorate their shared moment in the headlines of October 1916, and its failure to change anything much, because they offer a snapshot of the extremes to which Austro-Hungarian politics had fled in time of crisis, and because they shine a little light on a time and place that were important to the history of South-Eastern, Eastern and Central Europe, but have been largely ignored by English-speaking posterity. Oh, and because anything that reminds anyone how extreme politics generally fail to resolve crises, and frequently exacerbate them, seems worth talking about in October 2016.