Ignác Romsics:

The Great Powers and the Disintegration

Of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy

The great powers interfered decisively in the affairs of the Habsburg Monarchy two times. First, in 1849 when they saved it from disintegration, and second, in 1918-19 when they promoted its fall. Among the actors of 1849, Russia got a determinant role. Under the aegis of dynastic solidarity, and in fear of the spreading of the revolutionary wave, and as a result, being afraid of the disaggregation of its own multiethnic empire, the tsar set aside his expansive claims concerning those territories of the Danubian empire inhabited by Ukrainians (Eastern Galicia, Bukovina, Transcarpathia) and ordained his armies to help the Habsburg Empire. While Great Britain and France did not interfere militarily, their passivity unequivocally indicated that they considered the perpetuance of the Habsburg Empire essential from the aspect of the European balance of powers. As Palmerston, the to-be British Prime Minister noticed in 1849, ‘Austria lies in the middle of Europe, [and as such] it is the impediment of illegitimate expansion on the one hand, and the hindrance of invasions on the other. The political independence and liberty of Europe ... is tied to the maintenance and integrity of Austria, as a European great power; that is why anything intended to weaken or disable Austria directly or indirectly or, furthermore, to lessen its primary power position to that of a secondary state, would be so disastrous for Europe that it is the obligation of every Englishman to prevent and avert such a catastrophe."[1]

            In the 60 - 70 years after 1849 the consideration of the Monarchy in St. Petersburg, London and Paris changed a lot. The fact that the Habsburg took the sides of the Turks and the Western powers in the Crimean War of 1854-55 and that they provisionally occupied the Danubian princedoms resulted in losing the confidence of Russia. The occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1878, and furthermore its annexation in 1908 led to the total perishing of the connection between Vienna and St. Petersburg. This way the balance of powers in the Balkan region shifted towards the Monarchy. The fact of the annexation lessened the positive judgement of the Monarchy in London and Paris, that otherwise allied with the German Empire in 1879. The assumptions considering the balancing strategic role of the Danubian state lost their relevance, partly because serious tensions made the internal connections of the empire ill-balanced. Not only the desire of the Slavic peoples, primarily the Czechs and Slovaks, for federalism remained unfulfilled, but, in the first decade of the century, the situation between the two privileged nations, the Germans and the Hungarians, also deteriorated. That is why it came into fashion in the Western world to call the Monarchy, similarly to the Osmanic Empire, "the sick man of Europe".

            World War I, like other wars, was fought for territories. Russia laid claims to the southern parts of the Monarchy, Tirol, Istria, Dalmatia, the others were claimed by Serbia. Transylvania and the joined parts were claimed by Romania. In 1915 - 1916 the entente powers promised these territories to Russia, Serbia and Romania for their going to war and their war efforts. Among the opposing forces, only Russia had direct territorial claims against the Monarchy. According to the plans of the Russian expansion of the past, St. Petersburg wanted the eastern provinces of the Monarchy inhabited by Ukrainians and Ruthenians. On the other hand the tsar wanted to join the Galícia parts inhabited by Poles to an autonomous Poland inside Russia.

            In the beginning, the Russian diplomacy was unsure about the future of the remaining territories of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy wedged in between Poland, Great Romania and Great Serbia. Immediately before and after the war broke out the tsar often declared that Austria-Hungary would hardly be able to survive those territorial sacrifices that were going to be forced on it.[2] Several members of the political and military leadership shared the same thoughts. Austria-Hungary has to be divided into states serving the goals of Russia - the chief of the staff, Prince Aleksei surmised.[3] At the same time, the head of Russian diplomacy, Sazonov, the minister of foreign affairs, made contradictory declarations. In September 14, 1914 he told the delegates of the allied forces that the Habsburg Empire had to be turned into a kingdom composed of three member-states, Austria, Bohemia and Hungary after the war. However, in January 1, 1915 he told the Paléologue, the French ambassador that "Austria-Hungary has to be taken apart".[4] By 1916 the consequence of the different approaches and internal discussions was the acceptance of the total dismemberment and the organization of "new national states". Out of Austria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, Russia intended to tie the latter one more tightly to herself. However, Hungary could not have hoped better or more than a vassal state either.

            The revolutions of 1917, and Russia's retirement from the War saved East-Central Europe from the Russian influence. Among the judging to-be victors only the western allies, Great Britain and France remained standing, and the United States joining them in 1917.

            Unlike Russia, in the first part of the war the western allies did not have a final, crystal-clear opinion about the future of the Habsburg Empire. They conceded to the national principle only there and to such an extent, where it provided obvious advantages from the aspect of the changing power conditions. Such was the case of the Serbs and the Romanians, while the Italians were promised lands that could not or could hardly be supported by ethnic arguments.

            It was exactly the same uncertainty that was reflected in the secret document made in the August of 1916 and approved by the Prime Minister during the autumn, in which the experts of the British Ministry of Foreign Affairs first made their overall proposals about the territorial arrangement of Europe after the victory. This project considered the counter-balancing of the influence of the "German powers" and Russia, and restricting their territorial expansion to be "the most evident interest" of Great Britain in the eastern part of Europe. "For this purpose and for the general permanent arrangement, the national principle and the reasonable economical perspectives should be kept in view..." - the British politicians remonstrated. The authors of the memorandum did not exclude that the allies could "save" the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy as they had done in 1849. However, they considered another "script" more possible and desirable, according to which the empire would fall apart after the war "according to the conceptions granting free space to ethnic minorities". From the aspect of the strategic interests of the British Empire primarily the creation of a strong South-Slavic federation with its centre in Beograd was thought to be essential, since that "could form an obstacle for the German advance pressing eastward". The remaining parts of the Monarchy would have been divided between Austria imagined as a part of Germany, the independent Hungary and Romania, and Bohemia, that could have been either independent or joined to the South Slavic state or to the Russian subject-state, Poland.[5] The minister of foreign affairs, Balfour informed the Americans preparing for going to war in the same spirit in April 1917, stating that "three states would be formed in the place of the Austro-Hungarian Empire: Bohemia, Hungary and Austria". It has to be emphasized though, that parallel to that the conception of conserving the Monarchy by internal modernization and democratisation and federalization also endured. The Prime Minister Lloyd George declared in February 10, 1917, that ‘although we have to take sides with our allies, the Romanians, the Slavs, the Serbs and the Italians, our policy is not that of total dismemberment'.[6] One year later, in January 4, 1918 the cabinet made such a decision to his proposal that declared that ‘on condition of fulfilling the legal claims of our allies, we believe that Austria-Hungary has to be in such a position, that enables her to effectively influence South-eastern Europe'.[7]

            In the first half of the War the French government policy was also uncertain, and it was more for the maintenance of the Monarchy than for its total disintegration. At the beginning of the year 1915 a report of Maurice Paléologue, ambassador in St. Petersburg, refers to that, where he gave an account of his discussion with the Russian foreign minister. The key sentence of his report was: "The question of Austria is the only thing in which we should expect different opinions from the Russian government. As long as Germany and Italy exist, our interest is to maintain Austria". In August 8, 1916, Philipe Berthelot, a French diplomat who had the most aversion against the Monarchy among the leading French diplomats, and who was a close friend of Eduard Beneš, suggested to the foreign secretary in relation to the setting up of the Czech legion that "the time has not come yet to decide about the fate of Bohemia." And finally we could refer to the 1916 dedication of the committee set up to work out the French peace-proposals (Comité national d'études sociales et politiques). After a long and fierce debate this corporation stated that the interest of France was not the liquidation of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, but its federalization.[8]

            During 1917 the French made several plans about the most proper arrangement of the to-be federalized Monarchy. Among these, the most conceptualised praises the insight of the experts of the French general staff. As the 50-page long compilation emphasized, the simple falling apart of the Habsburg Empire into elements could only help the position of Germany, because the small, independent states jealous to each other and without any way out to the sea would almost strive for their great neighbour's favour. So the task and the slogan was not "delenda Austria!", but "constituenda Austria" - and in the form of the alliance of independent and democratic national states, but still under the sceptre of the Habsburgs. The new empire would have been constituted of four national and one multiethnic, territorial unit: Austria, Bohemia (Moravian and Czech territories without Slovakia), "Little Hungary", Croatia (the Croatian, Slovenian, Serbian and Dalmatian territories of the Empire), and Transylvania. From its former estates the empire would have lost Bukovina and Galícia; the former one would have been divided between Romania and Russia, the latter between Poland and Russia. The memorandum proposed to be only partly true to the promise of 1915 France had made to Italy and Serbia. Italy could have Tirol and Gorizia, but not Istria and North-Dalmatia, because these latter territories were integral parts of the Monarchy. According to the author, the formation of the culturally so different South-Slavic territories into one state would have been a greater mistake. Serbia would have got Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and South-Dalmatia to Cattaro, but not the integral parts of the Monarchy mostly inhabited by Catholic Southern Slavs. As the essay concludes, "after three years of war, it is time to think more about ourselves and less about others; the glorious peace so much deserved by France should not be delayed by such less important questions as the more or less intransigent claims of the Serbs or the Romanians."[9]

            The Monarchy-friendly conceptions of the general staff and other conservative-royalist circles were naturally fiercely attacked by the radical, freethinking, partly freemason, circles. Echoing the arguments of Beneš and Masarýk, they demanded the total destruction of the Monarchy.[10] However, their endeavours did not prove to be successful at that time. The French government was reluctant to decide about the future of the Danubian Empire by the end of 1917.

            From the viewpoint of the United States Europe, and especially the Danubian Basin was less important than from France or Great Britain. However, similarly to the Brits, it was an axiomatic principle of the American foreign policy that not any European powers or federal systems could be so strong to extend its domination over the whole continent and this way acquiring positions of a World Power. As Robert Lansing, American foreign minister remarked in July 11, 1915, more than two years before the United States' entering to the war: "It cannot be allowed for Germany to win the war or to back out of it." So they did not debate about strategic goals in the U.S. but about how and by what means this goal, the restoration of the continental power-balance and the keeping of Germany at bay, could be accomplished, and ensured. It is well-known that in January 8, 1918, President Wilson in his peace-program of 14 points committed himself only to the wide-ranging autonomy of ethnic minorities and not to the destruction of the Monarchy. Based on this, in April 1918, the Central European rapporteur of the American peace-preparing committee made a project about the transformation of the Monarchy into a confederation of 5 member states. On the other hand we know that Lansing never accorded with this conception. In his diary he wrote in January 10, 1918: "I believe that the President should give up this idea, and he should support the creation of new states on the territory of the empire, and the division of Austria and Hungary. I am convinced that it is the only sure way to end the Germans' European domination. I believe that we should consider the creation of a Polish, a Czech and maybe a Ruthenian state. After that the unification of Croatia, Slovenia, Dalmatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia in one state would follow. The annexation of the Transylvanian Romanians to Romania and the Italian provinces to Italy should also be considered. And finally, to complete the dismemberment, the Austrian Empire and the Hungarian Kingdom should also be divided. These independent states would become impenetrable obstacles for the German ambitions."[11]

            By the end of 1917 and in the first part of 1918 three events ended the western uncertainty about the future of the Monarchy. The first was the second Russian revolution, and the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty of March 1918. By that the western allies lost their most important eastern partner and had to face with the eastern outlines of the Mitteleuropa of the future. The essence of the East-Central and South-eastern European neue Ordnung codified in Brest-Litovsk was the separation of the western territories of the Russian Empire acquired since the rule of Peter the Great, and the creation of national states under German administration or control. The second new development was the scandalous ending of the private-peace negotiations with the new emperor of the Monarchy in April 12, 1918. the promulgation that Austria would have been willing to accept the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine to France, forced Charles IV into an impossible situation and he became more exposed to Germany. The third was the signing of the contract envisaging long-term political, military and economic cooperation between the German Empire and the Monarchy, in May 14-15, 1918. This latter act was interpreted similarly in Washington, London and Paris, that the Monarchy definitively joined to Germany, and the balancing role, many people had considered the Monarchy proper to fulfil even in 1917-1918, was no longer associated with Austria-Hungary. In the notes of May 23, 1918 of Lord Hardinge, British foreign under-secretary it appeared as follows: "All our efforts to separate Austria failed. It seems the meeting of the two emperors resulted in tightening the German bonds. We have to continue the fight and everything we can do: to encourage the subordinated peoples to rebel against the German-Hungarian rule".[12] From the spring of 1918 the question among the politicians of the entente powers was not whether the Monarchy would perpetuate or fall, but where would the new states emerging on the area of the empire would lie.

            The allies published their first common statement, in June 3, 1918, about the support of Poland's independence. This had already been mentioned in President Wilson's points of January and in the French and British leaders' public speeches of the same time. The Poles who tried to regain their independence so many times since the fall of Napoleon, and who trusted so hopelessly in the help of the West, owing to the fall of Russia, finally received the expected and necessary support. In the spring and summer of 1918 France demanded her allies to publish a common statement about the independence of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia as well, besides that of Poland, and to recognize the to-be South Slavic committees as governments. Because of England's abiding and Italy's stark opposition motivated by its suspecting a rival in the to-be South Slavic state, France could not accomplish this goal until the summer of 1918. So on the 29th of June only Paris acknowledged the Parisian Czechoslovakian National Council led by Beneš and Masarýk as the official representative of the Czech and Slovak nations and the basis of the government of the to-be Czechoslovakian state. A similar course was taken by England in August 9, and by the United States later, in September 3. Because of Italy's objection, Yugoslavia did not meet with a similar recognition until the end of the war. However, that did not change the fact that, together with Poland, Czechoslovakia and Great-Romania, a great South Slavic state was also present in the peace-purposes of the allies.[13] The particular questions were decided about partly in Paris, around the tables of the peace-conference and partly as results of the local wars between the interested parties.

            As an outcome of the Parisian peace treaties of 1919-1920 four independent states emerge in the place of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy: Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Poland, Romania and Italy took their share from the former territories of the empire. The declared principle of the peace treaties constituting the new states and state-borders was national self-determination. But that was complemented by other, economic, strategic and often purely territorializing aspects to such an extent that the new state configuration of the region was less corresponding to the national-ethnic principle than the ethnographic-demographic situation would have made it possible. That was partly the cause why just 20 years after the end of World War I, World War II started.




[1] Cited by Arday, Lajos: Térkép csata után. Magyarország a brit külpolitikában 1918-1919. Budapest, 1986, Magvető. 8.

[2] Hajdu, Tibor: A cári Oroszország hadi céljai Magyarországgal szemben az első világháborúban. In: Magyarország és a nagyhatalmak a 20. században. Ed. By Romsics, Ignác. Budapest, 1995. Teleki Alapítvány. 30-31.

[3] Cited in Merrit Abeash: War Aims toward Austria-Hungary: The Czechoslovak Pivot. In: Russian Diplomacy and Eastern Europe 1914-1917. Ed. By Henry I. Roberts. New York, 1963. 96.

[4] Maurice Paléologue: A cárok Oroszországa az első világháború alatt. Budapest, 1982. 126.

[5] Public Record Office, London. Cabinet 29/1.

[6] Wilfried Fest: Peace or Partition. The Habsburg Monarchy and British policy 1914-1918. New York, 1978. 60.

[7] Public Record Office, London. Cabinet 23/5. 14-15.

[8] Edit Marjanovic: Die Habsburger Monarchie in Politik und öffentlicher meinung Frankreichs 1914-1918. Wien, Salzburg, 1984. 3-56.

[9] Archives Diplomatiques, Paris. Guerre 1914-1918. Autriche-Hongrie. Vol. 151. La situation politique en Autriche_hongrie et ses conséquences. 23. 07. 1917.

[10] See for a more detailed explanation: Fejtő, Ferenc: Rekviem egy hajdanvolt birodalomért. Ausztria-Magyarország szétrombolása. Budapest, 1990. Minerva, Atlantisz, Medvetánc. 272-352.

[11] Taraszovics, Sándor: Amerikai béke-előkészületek az I. világháború alatt és tervek egy új Magyarországról. In: Magyarország és a nagyhatalmak a 20. században. Ed. By Romsics, Ignác. Budapest, 1995. 65-70.

[12] Arady, Lajos: op. cit. 66.

[13] Kalervo Hovi: Cordon sanitaire ou barriere de l'Est? Turku, 1975. 129-131.