The Tragic Death of the Habsburg EmpireJames Kurth (MA 49:4, Fall 2007) - 03/26/08
The contrast between an economically dynamic, politically unified, and military efficient Germany, on the one hand, and an economically comfortable, politically heterogeneous, and militarily cumbersome Austria-Hungary, on the other, gave rise at the time to many compare-and-contrast accounts, including a few jokes. One of the most familiar was: “In Germany, the situation is serious, but not desperate; in Austria, the situation is desperate, but not serious.” Alas, as history would soon demonstrate, the situation in Austria-Hungary and then in its successor states would become very serious indeed.
At any rate, given Austria-Hungary’s place among the Great Powers and within the Dual Alliance, it is easy to conclude that the Habsburg Empire was fated for decline and probably for an early defeat and death. Because all the Great Powers at the time (including the rising great powers on the periphery, the United States and Japan) were engaged in an intense competition of expansion, Austria-Hungary also had to expand. But because it was hemmed in by geography to the west and by Germany to the north, it had to expand to the south and to the east, and specifically into the Balkans. However, this automatically put it into conflict with Russia, which was also expanding into that region. This in turn, necessitated that Austria-Hungary ally, and stay allied, with Germany. But this meant that it would be involved in any war between Germany and another Great Power. If Germany were to be defeated in that war (as eventually happened in the First World War), Austria-Hungary would share in that defeat and would have to pay the consequences (as also eventually happened in the First World War). Conversely, if Germany were to win its war, it would be even more powerful vis-à-vis Austria-Hungary in the Dual Alliance than it had been before the war, and Austria-Hungary would have to pay the consequences of this instead.
However, even this apparently deterministic international system still contained important alternatives. For example, in the case of Germany and Austria-Hungary being defeated (the actual course of events), we can discern another path not taken. By late 1917, the Habsburg Empire was seeking a way to get out of the war, even to the point of considering a separate peace with the Western powers. Because of their traditional and long-standing interest in supporting the Habsburg Empire in Central Europe as a useful element in the balance of power vis-à-vis Germany and Russia, Britain and France might have come to accept a negotiated settlement which would have left the Empire largely in place, albeit with some territorial losses to Italy as the cost of having been on the losing side.
The Wilsonian Intervention
However, the United States was now in the war and was steadily becoming the leading Western power. Then, in January 1918, President Woodrow Wilson announced his famous Fourteen Points as the principles for a peace settlement. Point ten called for “limited self-government for the peoples of Austria-Hungary.” A month later, he expanded this into full “self-determination,” which meant the actual dissolution of the Habsburg Empire. He soon backed this up by giving aid and recognition to exile nationality organizations.9
Wilson saw himself as representing the most advanced liberal and progressive opinion of the time; he had been a leader of the Progressive reform movement and he called his domestic program “The New Freedom.” Like other liberals and progressives, then and now, Wilson rejected hierarchy and tradition in general and the Roman Catholic Church and old Europe in particular. The Habsburg Empire was the very embodiment of what he despised. Moreover, like other liberals and progressives, then and now, Wilson believed that any old order of hierarchy and tradition could easily be replaced by a new order of freedom and universal rights. Wilson’s ideas in 1918 live on in the ideas of the neo-Wilisonians of our own time, especially in the worldview of President George W. Bush and his “neoconservative” supporters (who are not really conservative at all, but are rather some kind of hyper-progressive).10