World War I

   On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir apparent to the crowns of Austria–Hungary, and his wife were killed on a visit to Sarajevo. The Balkan city was the capital of Bosnia, a province technically still part of the Ottoman Empire, but annexed by the Dual Monarchy in 1908.
   From the beginning of the 20th century, Habsburg governments in both Vienna and Budapest had been intensely worried by a growing movement among the south Slavs of the Balkans to create some sort of a South Slavic state. The crucible of these sentiments was the kingdom of Serbia, fully independent of Ottoman overlordship after 1878. From then until the beginning of the 20th century, relations between Austria–Hungary and the new state were comparatively cordial. However, in 1903 the ruling Obrenovć dynasty had been overthrown and replaced by the house of Karageorgević, which was heavily under the influence of several nationalist politicians. Their hopes for South Slavic unity were spreading to Serbian and Croatian ethnic communities living within the confines of the Habsburg Empire itself, including Bosnia.
   Austria–Hungary’s political and military leaders feared that such an innovation would inevitably undermine the monarchy as a whole. With Belgrade now becoming a center of anti-Habsburg propaganda, particularly after Austria’s takeover of Bosnia, some of Emperor Franz Joseph’s officials had begun to argue that Serbia would have to be curbed by force. The archduke’s assassination created the pretext for such a move. Several of the men who advised the aged monarch continued to regard war as a last resort. However, those who called for a quick strike against Serbia prevailed. Most insistent among them was the chief Habsburg commander, Field Marshal Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf (1852–1925), who had urged preemptive war with Belgrade since 1907.
   An ultimatum, so insulting that Serbia was bound to reject it, was sent to the government in Belgrade on 23 July. When Serbian Prime Minister Nicholas Pasif, under great pressure from the nationalist Serbian military establishment, did indeed refuse to allow officials from Austria–Hungary to investigate the evidence for a murder conspiracy in Serbia itself, Franz Joseph declared war on the kingdom on 28 July 1914. He was assured of help from Germany, with whom the Habsburgs had concluded the Dual Alliance of 1879. To forestall Russian intervention, a likely prospect because the tsarist government had grown increasingly close to its coreligionists in the Balkans, the Habsburg ruler declared that he had no intention of annexing further territory in the southeast. He, like even the most hawkish of his advisors, hoped that the war would be brief and confined to Serbia.
   These illusions vanished when Russia indeed entered the war. Now the entire eastern boundary of Austria–Hungary was open to invasion. Furthermore, the Russian move prompted the Germans to attack France, which was allied to the tsarist regime and had moved ever nearer to the British since their Entente Cordiale of 1904. By the first week of August, the continent was deep in war. Combat went badly for the Habsburg forces almost from the outset. Military plans for eastern campaigning had been betrayed to the Russians even before the conflict began, giving the tsar’s armies an advantage that they exploited very effectively. The Serbs fought doggedly in their own defense as well, leaving it up to the German armies to rescue their allies in Vienna. The Serbs were defeated in 1915, but that same year Italy, despite an alliance with Germany and Austria–Hungary concluded in 1882, entered the conflict on the side of the Western allies. Rome’s reward, specified in the secret Treaty of London of that same year, would be the South Tyrol and Trieste, among other Habsburg-held lands. The most immediate impact of the move on Austria–Hungary was that its armies had to open yet another front.
   The beginning of active combat turned the Austrian half of the Habsburg Empire into a police state, governed under the emergency provision in Article 14 of its constitution. This was resented by many political leaders of more liberal persuasions, who continued prewar discussions about reform of the monarchy despite the repressive environment. Numerous public clashes between dissidents and the police ended in arrests and imprisonment. Those called to the armed forces, however, fought with a loyalty that surprised many commentators. Somewhere around two million Austro–Hungarian troops ended up as prisoners of war in Russia and Italy. Despite blandishments from their captors, especially strong in Russia, where the Bolshevik Revolution had taken place in November 1917, most of the empire’s soldiers remained true to their original cause. Clashes among various ethnic groups of the Habsburg monarchy in the prison camps were, however, legion.
   Mounting casualty lists, growing economic deprivation, and the death of Franz Joseph in November 1916 all eroded resolve on the domestic front. Desertions from the armies increased, particularly among Czech troops. The new emperor, Charles I (Charles IV of Hungary), was eager to gain the goodwill of his people. One reason for his position was the assassination in October of the dictatorial Austrian minister-president, Count Karl Stürgkh (1859–1916), by Friedrich Adler (1879–1960), the son of a leading socialist, Viktor Adler. He therefore, against the advice of his ministers, resolved to call the parliament back into session. It met in May 1917 for the first time since March 1914, and immediately became a platform for those promoting demands for greater national autonomy. The Slavic peoples of the empire were especially insistent.
   Encouraged by his strong-willed wife, Empress Zita of BourbonParma (1892–1989), Charles began exploring ways to pull Austria–Hungary out of the war. Though his German partners were not above such tactics either, the new emperor’s schemes came to light through the French in a particularly embarrassing way in 1918. Charles was forced to visit German Emperor William II in the latter’s wartime camp in Spa and to offer an abject apology. The gesture, plus Austria Hungary’s evident military dependence on Germany, confirmed the opinion among many of Charles’s subjects that the Habsburgs would be no more than puppets manipulated from Berlin in the future. The pretense that the dynasty could protect their national identities within the monarchy was ebbing fast. A very bad winter in 1917–1918, during which rations were reduced and a wave of strikes hit key industries, made things even worse.
   In October 1918, facing certain defeat, Charles offered to turn the monarchy into a federation of peoples. His minister-president, Heinrich Lammasch (1853–1920), had long argued for this arrangement and for ending the war with a pact of mutual understanding among the belligerents. However, the proposal was largely taken as an invitation to throw off Habsburg government altogether. The empire broke apart during the last weeks of October. Charles himself withdrew from any role in governing Austria in November. The Treaty of St. Germain of September 1919 and the Treaty of Trianon of June 1920, which applied to Hungary, effectively completed the collapse of Austria–Hungary.

Historical dictionary of Austria. . 2014.

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