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.
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.
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.