The Fall of Austria

THE tenth of September marked the tenth anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Saint-Germain by which the Hapsburg Monarchy was formally dissolved. At the time the world took little notice; attention had for too long been concentrated on the overthrow of Germany, and, with the signature of the Treaty of Versailles, the great period of the Peace Conference had terminated. President Wilson had returned to America; Mr. Lloyd George had gone back to England; all that happened afterward seemed merely an epilogue, an aftermath; the liquidation of Austria and the future arrangements were left to the Foreign Ministers and to the officials.

But to the historian of the future the dethronement of the Hapsburgs and the dissolution of their Monarchy might well seem to be a greater event than the defeat of Germany. Even then it could be foreseen, and now it is well understood, that the Treaty of Versailles would appear simply as an episode in the history of the German nation; if the Hohenzollerns have disappeared, the Reich remains. Territorially it has indeed been cut down here and there, but Germany has come out of the war without losing the essential achievements of 1866 and 1871. The unity of the nation has been preserved, — in fact, it has been cemented by defeat and distress, — and already we are watching the slow and careful process by which Germany is setting about to regain her old position in Europe.

The fall of Austria is an event quite different in character: one of the oldest, the proudest, the most powerful states in Europe has been dissolved and shattered into fragments, and exists no more. For four centuries the history of Europe seemed to turn on the fortunes of the House of Austria; now the state and the army so long the bulwark of Europe against the Turks, which had imposed peace, order, and the elements of civilized government on those wide regions of Halb-Asien extending from the Black Sea to the Alps, have ceased to exist.

To many in England and in America this appeared to be an illogical, an unnatural, an unnecessary conclusion to the war. In the popular mind the war was one against the military predominance of Germany; Austria was of interest only as an ally, and a subordinate ally, of Germany; she was not a principal of the conflict and there seemed no particular reason why she should be the principal victim. We had no special quarrel with Austria; she was the one Power on the continent of Europe that appeared to have no political or military aims which could be inconvenient or dangerous to England, much less to America. Such intercourse as there had been was, as a rule, of a friendly nature.


The main criticism of the Austrian settlement is that the Conference, by the dissolution and dismemberment of the Monarchy, brought about what is called the ‘Balkanization’ of Europe; that is, it substituted for the military and civil control of Vienna and Budapest a number of smaller states which were naturally at rivalry with one another, in each of which the excesses of nationalism quickly became apparent, and which in their internal affairs fell far short of the administrative capacity, the honesty, and the comparative humanity which the Austrian bureaucracy, with all its faults, had maintained. Whether this change was desirable or not, it must from the beginning be emphatically recorded that the Peace Conference itself had no responsibility for it. Austria-Hungary had fallen to pieces two months before the Conference met, and all that the Conference had to do was to ratify and confirm what had already taken place and to make the necessary arrangements for dealing with the situation which it found in existence.

But we must go back still further. For all that happened during the war, and the dissolution of the AustroHungarian Monarchy with which the war concluded, were implicit in the political situation before the war began. The future of Austria was in truth the main problem with which Europe was confronted in the year 1914. It was the direct and immediate cause of the outbreak of war; the fact that the war ended with the destruction of the Monarchy was no accidental or unexpected result. Least of all was it the result of deliberate purpose on the part of the Allies. Before the war began everything that has since happened had been foreseen by acute observers who had recognized that, by appealing to the sword, the Hapsburg Monarchy would be bringing about its own fall. It was doubtful whether AustriaHungary could survive a victory; it was impossible that she should survive a defeat. We must therefore begin our investigation with an inquiry into the situation of Austria in 1914 and a consideration of the acts by which the Austrian Government brought about the war.

In order, then, to understand the end of the war it is necessary to go back to the beginning and inquire into the causes which led to it. There was at the time much misconception as to the part played by Austria. It was generally believed that she had been overpersuaded, if not actually coerced, by Germany into acts which made war inevitable, and that even at the last moment she had attempted to free herself from the consequences of these acts. This was all completely wrong. We now know that it was Austria which took the initiative throughout, that the action of Austria against. Serbia was proposed entirely on her own responsibility, that the Austrian Government had deliberately come to the conclusion that a war with Serbia was justifiable and necessary, and even that it was better to risk a war with Russia than to desist from the intended attack against Serbia. During the last critical days it was the German Chancellor who was making futile and belated efforts to free himself from the entanglement in which he was involved, but all these efforts were frustrated by the obstinacy of Berchtold and his colleagues.

But even when we recognize the full measure of Austrian responsibility there is a further point which requires elucidation — the motives of Austrian action. It was easy to regard it as a concerted scheme of Austrian and German aggression in the East, as one more stage in the long rivalry between Austria and Russia for control over the Balkans. The quarrel between Austria and Serbia is then placed in the category of a Balkan question. But this is a very incomplete and misleading point of view. We can now see that the ultimate motive for Austrian offensive action against Serbia was not merely her Balkan ambitions; to her there was something at stake infinitely more intimate and important — the very existence of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy itself. The war against Serbia was deliberately undertaken because it seemed to the soldiers and statesmen at Vienna that strong aggressive action was the only means of checking the decay and the disorganization which were rapidly destroying the fabric of the Monarchy. The world, in fact, was not confronted by the Turkish question, which for fifty years had so often threatened the peace of Europe; for the first time it was brought face to face with something much more serious—the Austrian question. M. Sorel concludes his book on the Eastern question, written in 1878, with the words: —

For a hundred years we have been working to solve the question of the Orient. But the day we think we have settled that, Europe will be brought face to face with the question of Austria.

The Balkan Wars had solved the Turkish question, and the day which M. Sorel foresaw had arrived. M. Poincaré recognizes this. He says, in L’Union Sacrée, 1914: ‘Inevitably the death of the Archduke, before that of the old Emperor, served not only to reopen the Balkan question, but to emphasize the Austrian.’


But if the problem of Austria was the true cause of the war, it was by the war that the future of Austria was to be determined. The history of Austria during the war falls into two chapters. During the first period she came completely under the control of the German and the military elements in the Empire itself. The real control of the civil power was transferred to the military authorities; it was a time when civil liberty in Austria, to a far greater extent than with any other of the European belligerents, was destroyed, military tribunals took the place of the regular courts, and in particular the Slavonic races of the Monarchy, the Czechs and the Croatians, were subjected to the closest control. But if the government at home was transferred to the military, at the same time the course of the military operations brought it about that the Austrian army itself was gradually being put into a position of subordination to the German High Command. It was a time when, in consequence, Naumann, in his well-known book, Mitteleuropa, could look forward to a future constitution of Europe in which a subordinate Austria would take its part among the other client states centred round the great institutions by which the victorious German army established its sway over the whole of Europe. At the end of 1916 a great change took place, a change inaugurated by the death of the old Emperor, which was quickly followed by the complete alteration in the political aspect of the war caused by the Russian Revolution and the coming in of America.

The assassination in October 1916 of Stürgkh by Friedrich Adler, the son of Victor Adler, the ablest and most respected of Socialist leaders, was a symptom of the general dissatisfaction with the military and bureaucratic dictatorship with which the country was being governed. One of the first acts of the young Emperor was to relax the strain; an amnesty was proclaimed and the prisons emptied. Moreover, the Austrian Parliament, which had not met since 1913, was now summoned. It was indeed impossible for the government not to be affected by the general change in the political atmosphere which was brought about by the Russian Revolution. Everywhere on the Continent the voice of criticism began to be raised; it was no longer possible to maintain the embargo on discussions as to war aims, and in every such discussion increasing attention was given to the principles of which President Wilson was beginning to make himself the advocate. In July 1917, the majority in the German Reichstag declared for peace, without annexations and indemnities, but in Austria similar principles could only lead to a demand for freedom for the subject races from domination by the Germans and the Magyars. This freedom could take one of two forms, the reform and federalization of the Empire, so as to give full autonomy to each of the constituent races, or the dissolution of the Empire and complete independence.

There were still many who hoped and believed that the former alternative would be possible. The young Emperor had neither the ability nor the character resolutely to carry through so great a change, and indeed it was too late. The Czechs and the Yugoslavs only used the liberty of speech which they enjoyed in the reopened Reichsrat to explain, in scarcely veiled language, their open disloyalty to the State. The crisis came with the defeat of the German armies. This was followed by the surrender of Bulgaria on September 30 and the Austrian and German peace offers on October 4. For the moment the eyes of all were directed across the Atlantic; the Austrians, like the Germans, had asked for peace on the basis of the Fourteen Points.

President Wilson’s answer came on October 18; in this he declared that the Government of the United States has recognized that a state of belligerency exists between the Czechoslovaks and the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires, and that the Czechoslovak National Council is a de facto belligerent Government, clothed with proper authority to direct the military and political affairs of the Czechoslovaks.

It has also recognized in the fullest manner the justice of the nationalist aspirations of the Yugoslavs for freedom.

The President is therefore no longer at liberty to accept a mere ‘autonomy’ of these peoples as a basis of peace, but is obliged to insist that they, and not he, shall be the judges of what action on the part of the Austro-Hungarian Government, will satisfy their aspirations and their conception of their rights and destiny as members of the family of nations.

These words were the death knell of Austria. The effect was decisive. The Slavonic members of the Austrian Parliament seceded and returned to Prague and Laibach. October 21 was the decisive day. The city of Prague rose; the government, practically without a struggle, was taken out of the hands of the Stadthalter and the Austrian authorities and from that day onward was carried on in the name of the Czechoslovak Republic. Immediately afterward an assembly was summoned at Agram with representatives of all the Southern Slav Provinces of the Monarchy, whether Austrian or Hungarian, and they negotiated and agreed to a union with the Serbian Kingdom, which became effective on December 1.

Already Hungary had formally severed her connection with Austria, and so it came about that by the end of November the Empire no longer existed. In particular the army on which it had so long depended, the army which had always remained both the symbol and the instrument of unity, had dissolved. Immediately after the defeat on the Piave in June, the Magyar Government, with a singular want of loyalty, recalled all Magyar troops to Hungary. This was the signal for the complete dissolution of the army. The defeat became a rout; regiments broke up in disorder, and the whole army separated itself into its constituent elements. At Laibach station it was possible to see an empire in dissolution — Czechs, Croatians, Magyars, Poles, each tearing off the military symbols on their uniforms, violating regimental unity, and starting on their journey to their home country. They were no longer soldiers in the Austrian army; they were citizens of the new states which at that very moment were springing up from the débris.

The attitude of the Allies toward Austria during these last two years of the war has been criticized, as was not unnatural, on the ground that it was vacillating and inconsistent. There were indeed two main motives of policy. As we have seen, Austria was tending to fall more and more under the influence and control of Germany; if, then, the war were to end without a decisive defeat of Germany, the probable result would be that AustriaHungary would cease to be a Great Power, of equal status to and independent of Germany, but would become a client state, with the result that German power over Eastern Europe would be enormously increased. This above all was to be avoided. There were two ways by which this might be done. The first was the separation of Austria-Hungary from Germany, the second the complete destruction of the Monarchy. Both policies had their advocates; both were being carried on at the same time.

From the time of the accession of the Emperor Charles there was abundant indication that the Austrian Government desired to be quit of the war, desired to make itself independent of Germany, and hopes were therefore raised that it might be entangled into making a separate peace. We have not space here to retell the story of the intrigues and negotiations, the secret conversations of Prince Sixte of Bourbon with the Emperor Charles, which led eventually to the fall of Czernin and did so much to discredit the Emperor; or of the Smuts-Mensdorff conversations, the story of which has been told to the public for the first time by M. Beneš. It is sufficient to point out that there were at least some who believed there was a real possibility of dividing Austria from Germany and making a separate peace. As we can now see, the hope was in fact impossible. What the Emperor Charles was willing to do was to enter into peace negotiations, but his object always was eventually to bring Germany in also; never did he seriously contemplate open treachery to his ally. Even had he desired this, it would not have been practicable, for the Austrian army was so intermingled with German forces, the Austrian frontier was so open to Germany, that an independent policy had become physically impossible. There remained, then, only the other alternative — the complete destruction of Austria, to be brought about by encouragement given to the subject Slavonic nations, and especially to the Czechs and the Yugoslavs.

At the beginning of the war we may confidently say that there was scarcely anyone in England to whom it occurred that one of the chief war weapons would be open encouragement to rebellion in Bohemia and Croatia. There was little knowledge of or interest in these subject races; how few knew or cared anything about the Czechs, let alone the Slovaks or Slovenians or Slavonians! It took three years of carefully organized propaganda before the leading members of the British Government had been won over to the scheme. The inception and the success were ultimately due to one man. If there is anyone who may claim the credit — or, as some would call it, the discredit — of the destruction of Austria, it is Dr. Masaryk, the present President of the Czechoslovak State. He is the one man who, as early as August 1914, foresaw the course which the war would take; he at once determined that the end must be the destruction of Austria, and through all his writings, generally so equable, so philosophic, so detached, there runs a vein of hatred — based, as he would tell us, on the profoundest moral reasons — for Austria.

He believed that the opportunity had come for achieving the full freedom and independence of his country, but this he also saw would require a long war, and perhaps he was the only man who definitely foresaw and desired that the war should last for three or four years, for it would require all that time to win over the Allies to his policy and to make them understand that the deliverance of Europe from German hegemony could only be brought about by breaking up Austria into constituent parts and setting up the Slav nationalities each in full independence. In order to carry out this policy he left Austria and in Paris and London began his open propaganda, in which he was helped by his very able lieutenant, Dr. Beneš, who a few months later, at the peril of his life, succeeded in escaping to Switzerland and set up, as he tells us, that organization in Paris which was eventually to develop into a Czechoslovak Government.


When, thus, the Peace Conference met, on all the greater matters it had nothing left to do except to ratify and put on record decisions which had already been made and acts which had already been accomplished. The Austrian Empire had been shattered into fragments. The Conference had to deal with the Republic of Austria, comprising the old hereditary German provinces of the Counts of Hapsburg; socalled Czechoslovakia, the restoration of the old Kingdom of Bohemia, which had been in abeyance for three centuries; and a Kingdom of Hungary, which had dethroned the Hapsburgs and once more claimed to be an independent state. The South Slavonic Provinces had, by their own free act, united with the Kingdom of Serbia; and the great province of Galicia was, as to the western half, already merged into the newly constituted Polish State, while the eastern half, inhabited not by Poles but by Ruthenians, was starting a campaign to maintain its independence of Polish conquerors.

What the Conference then had to do was to give its final endorsement to that which had in fact been achieved, for who would for a moment contemplate an attempt to cancel these acts? When the Peace Conference is charged with having broken up the Austrian Monarchy, the answer is, Do you suggest that British and American soldiers should have been sent to force back the Czechs into a union which they had rejected, or to separate once more the Southern Slavs into separate states?

In some matters the decision of the Conference had been anticipated, even to a further degree, by an arrangement surely unique in diplomatic history. Not only had the Allies given their formal recognition to the newly constituted Czechish State, but the representatives of the Republic of Czechoslovakia were actually invited to take part in the Peace Conference as principals. It was indeed a remarkable position. The Kingdom of Bohemia and the Duchy of Moravia, as part of the Austrian Empire, had fought throughout the war on the side of Germany. The revolution had taken place at the end of November; it was then, and only then, that Czechoslovakia came into existence, at the same time as, and in the same manner as, the new Republic of Austria. The soldiers of both states had fought side by side during the war; Bohemian representatives had until the very end sat in the Austrian Parliament and even in the Austrian Ministry, but suddenly the Czechs found themselves promoted to the position, not only of friends, but of allies who had taken part in the war against Germany, and they were actually asked to sign the Treaty of Peace with Austria, the state to which they themselves had belonged. When, we may well ask, was Czechoslovakia at war with Austria? Throughout the few days which intervened between the revolution and the armistice they had maintained a representative at Vienna, and friendly relations had taken place between the two infant republics.

That so strange a situation should have been brought about is the highest testimony to the diplomatic ability of Dr. Beneš, who, as we know from his own Memoirs, had for a long time been deliberately working to bring it about that his country should appear at the Peace Conference, not in the position which would have normally been assigned to it, as a suppliant, as a subject whose fate was to be determined, but as an active participant in the decisions, on an equality with the older states of Europe.

Let us confess that there is no reason for pride or satisfaction in the manner in which the Austrian question was dealt with by the Conference. Though, as we have seen, the main decisions had been made, there was still much to be done; all the details of the frontiers had to be determined, and, above all, there was the financial liquidation. In this case there was not merely, as in the case of Germany, the question of reparation and payments to the Allies; the whole question of the liquidation of the Austrian State, the assignment of its assets and liabilities between the constituent parts, the responsibility, for instance, of the pre-war and the war debt, had to be determined. And then again we must never forget that the great importance of the Austrian Monarchy lay not so much in the political or even the military side as in its commercial aspect. It constituted a closed customs union with a population of over fifty million; containing, as it did, both large mineral resources and wide areas of agricultural land, it provided a good market for manufactured articles and for agricultural products. The peasants of Galicia and the manufacturers of Bohemia and Lower Austria both profited by the fact that they belonged to the same commercial unit. Was this to be broken up? Were new barriers of trade to be set up where hitherto all had been free and open? And then there were such problems as the treatment of the railways, the navigation of the Danube, the disposal not only of the fleet, but also of the merchant shipping of Trieste and the Dalmatian coast.

All these things might seem to require early and rapid consideration, for the situation was dangerous. The four years of war had brought about a condition of destitution far beyond that which prevailed even in Germany; there were weeks when mass starvation in the city of Vienna was scarcely avoided. It was above all urgent to restore as rapidly as possible financial confidence and commercial enterprise in order that the ordinary routine of life might begin once more. The Allies had their representatives at Vienna, who addressed urgent and repeated warnings to their governments, but no notice was taken and no action followed. Four months were allowed to elapse before the consideration of the most difficult parts of the Austrian Treaty was taken in hand, and then the only instructions issued to the commissions was that they should draft the Austrian Treaty on the model of the German Treaty.

There was indeed one exception. The territorial commissions had already begun their work and were busily occupied with the settlement of the frontiers of the new states, one commission for Poland, one for Czechoslovakia, and one for Rumania and Yugoslavia. It will be observed, therefore, that every territorial problem was approached, not from the point of view of the Republic of Austria or of Hungary, but from that of Serbia, Rumania, Poland, and Czechoslovakia; Austria and Hungary were merely the residuum which was left when the new states had been constituted and the transference of territory to Serbia and Rumania had been completed. None the less, so far as the Republic of Austria goes, — and we are on this occasion concerned with that alone, — except with regard to one point, the frontiers are not open to any really serious criticism. The representatives of Austria had indeed in the first enthusiasm of its new existence as an independent state demanded that the German-speaking districts in the north of Bohemia and Moravia should, because they were German-speaking, become part of the Republic of German Austria. The proposal was of course absurd and could not be considered for a moment, for there was no territorial connection between them. The Conference did wisely in accepting the principle that Bohemia should, as to both Germany and Austria, maintain its old frontiers which had existed unchanged for over five hundred years; unfortunately the pressure exercised by the Czechs led them to assent to some slight diversions, as, for instance, at Gmunden and the Valley of the Morava, which, though in themselves of no great importance, seemed to show an unfortunate bias.

There was more difficulty in coming to a satisfactory arrangement as to the frontier with Yugoslavia, for here a new line had to be drawn; there was no old established provincial frontier which in the least coincided with the linguistic and racial division. The most difficult problem was that of Klagenfurt, and here it was wisely determined to have recourse to a plebiscite, the result of which was that the whole of the disputed area remained Austrian and the frontier was moved south to the natural geographical division, the ridge of the Karawanken Mountains. But as a result the great mass of the German-speaking Austrians remained in their old secular local unions, Upper and Lower Austria, Styria, Salzburg, Vorarlberg, and the Tyrol. The Tyrol, yes; but that brings us to what, by general opinion, is the great blot on the Austrian Treaty, the assignment to Italy of a three hundred thousand German-speaking population who live south of the Brenner!


The ultimate result of all these great events has been to bring about a condition of things which all liberal thinkers before the war looked to as the great ideal to be achieved, and which many of them, now that it has been achieved, make a subject of carping and criticism. Broadly speaking, Europe, including the Austrian Monarchy, has been divided in accordance with the principle of nationality. The old submerged nationalities, Poles and Czechs, have regained that full independence of which they had been deprived so many generations ago. And in the rest of Europe, roughly speaking, the territory has been so apportioned as to assign the great majority of each race and people to their own national state. The Rumanians of Transylvania have been incorporated in the Kingdom of Rumania, the Southern Slavs have been united to the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, the Slovaks have been freed from Hungarian rule and united to the kindred Czechs. Of course the work has not been perfectly done. There are some places in which the actual drawing of the frontiers seems to be open to considerable criticism. In particular, nobody is quite happy about the northern and eastern frontiers of Hungary, and there is a widespread belief that more Magyars have been transferred to Czechoslovakia and to Rumania than was absolutely necessary. The incorporation, without conditions, of East Galicia, with its Ruthenian population, in Poland, is obviously not an entirely satisfactory decision; it was one taken only after months of arduous labor when no other solution seemed in fact practicable. In many cases any precise apportionment of the different races, each to its own people, was for geographical reasons impossible.

And so we get that ’Minorities’ problem of which so much has been heard recently. It is no doubt a serious and interesting and in some ways a baffling problem, but do not let us exaggerate its importance; do not let us be misled into supposing that the fact of the existence of the Minorities problem is, as many would suggest, a condemnation of the new settlement of Europe. Let us get these things in their right proportion; the presence of a limited number of German-speaking people in Poland, of Magyars in Czechoslovakia and in Rumania, is not comparable to the older situation, when national existence was denied to Poles and to Czechs; all that we have to do with now is the small residuum of a great political problem.

On the whole, in its broad outlines the settlement of 1919 was in accordance with the best political thought of the time and with the principles which had been publicly adopted by the Allies. Whether these principles were right and whether the settlement based on them will prove to have been a wise and profitable one, only time can show. The answer depends not on what was done in 1919, but on the use which the new states make of the opportunities which have been given to them. Naturally enough there was at first a violent explosion of more extreme national feeling. It may well be that in many cases the sudden responsibility thrown upon the newly created states caused a situation with which they did not deal wisely and generously. It is also undoubtedly true that these peoples, suddenly coming into full possession of that independence which they had so long desired, exaggerated just those aspects of state sovereignty which experience showed were most dangerous to the general welfare of Europe. They hastened to show that they could imitate greater states in building up armies, and equally they aimed at making themselves commercially self-sufficient and erected high tariff barriers. They have, therefore, undoubtedly presented to the statesmanship of Europe problems with which it is desirable to deal. Once again do not let us be misled into thinking that the problems of the new Europe are in any way as serious and as dangerous as those of the old Europe which has been superseded.