War and Peace

World War I and the End of the Austro-Hungarian Empire

“I think Austro-Hungary was under enormous pressure, enormous threat. Nationalism was tearing Austro-Hungary apart in many respects even before the war. There were pressures in Poland for example [and] obviously among the Slavs, particularly in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which of course the Austro-Hungarians had formally annexed in 1908.

There were however unifying factors that kept everything together. One was perhaps something like the Danube, the international waterway of the Danube, the Austro-Hungarian army, the common army, the Imperial army but above all there was this loyalty to the Emperor. He was of course the longest reigning monarch in Europe. He had come to the throne in 1848. He seemed a permanent fixture. And I think there was an enormous residual loyalty to the person of the aged Emperor.

And when he died during the war you lost that sense of loyalty to the person of the Emperor. His successor, his great-nephew Carl, was I think a very capable young man but it was too late because the challenge that the war represented to the structures of the empire both in Austria and Hungary were immense.

And clearly the nationalities within the empire were pursuing their own agendas and at the very end: the Poles, the Slavs, the Czechs, they were all declaring independence from the empire – Hungary too, and even Austria. At the very end of the war in October 1918, Carl gave Austria more autonomy within the empire but Austria then simply broke away and declared it was also going to want independence from the rest of the empire.

And when it came to the peace conferences in 1919, the reality is that the Austro-Hungarian Empire had already disappeared.”


© Ian Beckett
Ian Beckett
Professor Ian Beckett is Professor of Military History at the University of Kent and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society of Great Britain. His research focuses on British auxiliary forces, the First World War, and the late Victorian army. His published works include The Making of the First World War: A Pivotal History (Yale University Press, 2012).