From the book "Roots of Modern European Conflict: 1850-1950"
Freedman Publishers, Inc., Copyright 1992
Following the defeat of Napoleon in 1812, Austria was instrumental in setting up the Confederation of German States, a replacement in many ways for the Holy Roman Empire it had killed in 1804. Primarily an economic confederation, it lasted until the 1860's when Prussia began its mass takeover of the other German states. During its fifty year run, Austria managed to dominate it, much as it had the Holy Roman Empire before, though its dominance was first challenged – and then voided – by the Prussian expansion.
Surprisingly, in many ways the Confederation worked more efficiently and less corruptly than the Empire did itself. That a loose collection of independent nations was able to work together with more harmony than the theoretically single nation of the Hapsburgs was not lost on the intellectuals of Austria, and many began the call – once again – for reform.
Reform, however, remained unachieved until in 1847, when the Magyars of Hungary revolted and declared an independent Hungarian kingdom. Austrian forces moved in and – with the help of Russian troops (relations between the two would not sour until the 1880's) – put down the revolt and restored Austrian control. However, this once more pointed out the need for reorganization of the Austrian Empire, which had long been characterized by inefficiency, graft, and a tendency to "put off until tomorrow."
Franz Karl I called for a committee to create a constitution for the Empire, one that would strengthen it, but at the same time quiet the increasing calls for independence amongst its many peoples. Meeting in the small town of Kremsier, a group composed of intellectuals and leaders from all over the Empire (dominated, it must be admitted, by the German liberals) hammered out the first agreement ever to be agreed upon by all
of the Empire's ethnic groups – the "Kremsier Constitution."
It went before the ministers and the Emperor in late October of 1849, where it was debated and mulled over for several months, almost vanishing into the pit of ineffectuality that was the Austrian government before a surprise defeat of Austrian troops stationed in Hungary by a band of guerrillas – and the threat of a new uprising – caused the Emperor to come to a decision, and push through acceptence of it.
Following the adoption of the "Kremsier Constitution" in 1850, and its signing by the Emperor Franz Karl I on June 15th of that year, the Austrian Hapsburg Empire became officially what it had always been un
officially – a supranational collection of individual nations united by a single monarchy. The constitution guaranteed (and still does, though much modified in other ways today) "all the national groups of the Empire have equal rights...Each of them has the inviolable right to the preservation and cultivation of its nationality in general and its language in particular. Legal equality of all languages, and public life will be guaranteed by the state."
The Emperor became a constitutional monarch, and much of his power was divested to the new Austrian Reichstag which, similar to the one adopted two years before in Switzerland, was divided into two houses, the lower representing the people, the upper the various lands of the Empire. While it has to this day retained the term "Empire" in its name, Austria became more of a monarchical federation of peoples, living in almost autonomous nations, but cooperating closely for national security, for the maintenance of the peace, and for economic growth.
Along with the constitution, there came about the promotion of what was called "The Austrian Idea." For centuries, the Empire had never had a common sense of "nationalism." Its peoples had always had their loyalties
to their own national groups and, almost as an afterthought, to the Emperor. Not to the Empire, the Emperor.
While this worked, after a fashion, it made for slow political, economic, and cultural progress. Now, progressive liberals of all the nationalities within the Empire began to promote this idea of "federation". Of all the nations within the Empire working together for the common good. And of loyalty not just to one's nation, but to the greater Empire which would protect them, insure the continued peace of their lands, and help maintain their prosperity.
On the whole, the Empire has tried to live up to these goals. During the latter half of the 19th century, it began to move away from the militarism that typified the first half (with, admittedly, good reason) , and once again returned to its roots of "Bella gerant alii, tu, Felix Austria, nube"
(Let others fight wars; thou, fortunate Austria, marry). While it was no longer possible for Austria to literally
conduct foreign policy through dynastic marriage (to say nothing of acquiring additional lands), the Empire was able to use its position as the meeting ground between East and West, North and South, to build up the ties and obligations of other nations in such a way that the security of the Empire grew to its highest level in centuries, while it became the economic powerhouse of Central Europe. Though the now Prussian dominated German Empire grew more powerful along Austria's northern borders, while Russia did the same along the eastern, the Hapsburgs were able to hold their own against these military giants, without having to resort to the massive military buildups that they did.
At the beginning of the 20th century, however, it almost all came crashing down.
During the chaos that followed the "St. Petersburg Event,"
and the breakup of the Russian Empire, Austria quickly moved troops along the borders of the fractured giant to its east. Austria had long considered itself (with justification) the protector of Central Europe – this, in fact, was one of the key components of "The Austrian Idea" – and it saw the collapse of Russia as a definite threat to the area. Within days of arrival, the 3rd, 5th and 12th Imperial Armies crossed the border into the former Russian Empire in an effort to quell the violence which threatened to spill over into Hapsburg territories. Soon more troops were sent into the area as the front moved ever eastwards. What was to become "The Eurowar"
The Empire had many other purposes for moving in, however. It saw a need to keep the area out of Ottoman hands (for the Ottomans had almost immediately begun moving north into the primarily Muslim territories of the southern Russias – and the Austrians had not yet forgotten the Muslim invasions of the 12th-17th centuries!) It wanted to try to consolidate several of the ethnic groups then split between Empire territory and other countries. And, almost the most important reason, it needed to try and keep Germany from grabbing too
much land, disturbing the balance between them.
Thus, for the first time in decades, the Austrian Army was on the move in mass.
It was a remarkably peaceful "invasion", however, as the Ukrainians and Bessarabians welcomed them more as liberators than as a change of masters. The two territories were set up as the Duchies of Ukrainia and Bessarabia with, in a startlingly wise move, local rulers as the aristocracy. After a "settling in" period of five years, long before the war ended, the two became full members of the Empire and sent their first representatives to the Reichstag.
These new territories later began to be referred to as "Der Neue OstMärz"
("The New East March").
Perhaps lulled into complacency by their easy acquisition of these lands to the east and the Empire-wide upswelling of pride in Austrian military accomplishments, the Emperor requested of the Reichstag – and got, with almost no dissent – permission to now invade southwards,
to continue the "ethnic consolidation." First to be invaded – and added to the Empire – was the Kingdom of Romania
This invasion was anything but
peaceful. Five long years of heavy fighting between the two were the result, until the Treaty of Bukharest in the summer of 1915. In this, Romania remained intact as a nation, but as a Austrian protectorate (Since that time, in spite of occasional uprisings, Romania gradually moved into becoming a full member of the Empire, but it still did not get a seat on the Reichstag until 1945!).
While the southern invasion was beginning, Austrian troops continued to move eastwards into former Russian lands, but back in Vienna, both the Emperor and the Reichstag were having second thoughts about the whole affair. Pulling the Bessarabians, Ukrainians and Rumanians into the Empire made a great deal of sense. All three ethnic groups already resided within Hapsburg territories and most of the political and military problems Vienna had had
during the last half-century involved the desire of these peoples to "join" with their brethren outside the borders. Allowing them to do so within
the borders of the Empire certainly seemed a better solution than letting the lands go (for similar reasons, but with much poorer results, Austria would expand the southern invasion into the Balkans a year later).
But now they were moving into lands that had never been a part of Austria, had no peoples who were currently represented (other than by a few immigrants) within the Empire, so the rational for further invasion was falling apart. Unfortunately, while both the Emperor and the Reichstag agreed that this was probably a very bad idea, neither could they just let the area go "its own way." For one thing, the Germans or Ottomans or both would be sure to try and snap it up and keeping the violence and chaos this would create from spilling over into the Empire would be nearly impossible. For another, at the moment, thanks to "the "Prussia Treaty" setting a dividing line between German and Austrian "acquisitions" in Russia at 50o
north – The "Prussian Line" – tensions between Berlin and Vienna had greatly diminished. If Austria pulled back, however, Germany would surely move in, in spite of the treaty, and Austria might very well find itself at war with Germany!
It must have seen a blessing when Britain decided to become involved in the Russias.
Initially, Austria had encircled the British held territory in the Crimea. But it had made sure to stay back at a sufficient distance that fighting between the two armies was very unlikely. And while this was going on, Vienna and London were negotiating like mad.
The finalized treaty between Britain and Austria acknowledged Austria's new ownership of Bessarabia and the Ukraine (Romania was not mentioned), in return of which Austria agreed to cede all other Russian territories to Britain, to not interfere with British shipping through the Bosporus and the Black Sea, and to remain neutral in future conflicts between the British, German, and Russian forces in the former Russian territories. Austria cheerfully signed. The treaty achieved all the ends they had entered the east to accomplish. It pulled back to the eastern Ukrainian borders by the end of 1910, and was able to send nearly half of its troops towards the Balkans for its planned takeovers of Serbia, Bulgaria, and Albania.
On August 3rd, 1911, Austria made what was almost the biggest mistake of its long history – it invaded Serbia. Fighting was long and heavy, it would be three years to conquer the Serbs, and another two for its troops to capture Albania, even with the help of it's Bulgarian allies. Then, in late 1914, it moved into the Turkish lands surrounding Constantinople. The Ottoman Turks were heavily overextended in their expansion into the predominately Muslim lands of the southern Russian Empire territories, fighting both Russian and British troops, and usually even the Muslim inhabitants. But still, they managed to pull together a good defense of the city they had held since they had conquered the Byzantines six hundred years before. Austria lost nearly 60% of the troops she moved into the region, and only succeeded in capturing Constantinople because of the blockade her navy managed to seal around the city, and because of help from Greece and the Greek inhabitants of the area.
Previously supported by the people of the Empire, the war now was growing very unpopular.
It was now late 1915, and the great powers were growing exhausted by the endless war over the former Russian territory. Negotiations for a truce between Britain and Germany had actually been going on since 1913, and now the Ottoman's, Finland, and the two remaining Russian states in western Russia joined in on the meetings. Austria found herself the mediator, in spite of the obvious bad feelings between her and the Russian states.
On November 9th of 1915, a temporary cease-fire was called between all the major powers. For the first time in nearly a decade, the big guns fell silent in Russia (though many small guns, unfortunately, did not). Meetings went on through the long winter nights, and on March 1st of 1916, the "Treaty of Minsk" was released. Britain and Austria quickly signed, and the rest of the warring powers followed (Turkey was the last, not signing until six months after the treaty officially went into effect).
For the next year, a committee composed of representatives from all the great powers hammered out what was to be the new borders for Eastern Europe (it should be noted that they did not even try to set borders for the eastern Russias. Fighting there, in fact, continues to the present day).
Austrian Empire, 1908
Austrian Empire, 2000