The Collapse of Austria-Hungary

The House of Habsburg had been one of the most powerful dynasties in Europe for the past 500 years. Starting in with only a small canton in Switzerland in the 900s, over the centuries the dynasty has held titles such as King of Portugal, Spain, Austria, and even Holy Roman Empire. But by the the early 20th century, the Habsburgs had lost much power throughout Europe, only controlling the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Austria-Hungary controlled large swaths of land in Central and Eastern Europe. However, the empire was declining in power. Their army was less advanced than other European nations, and there was growing nationalism throughout the culturally-diverse Austria-Hungary.

Habsburg domains in 1700

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, tensions were building in Europe. The powers across the continent had created alliances with the goal of keeping each other in check. In the 6 years before World War I, the collective military expenditures of the major European countries increased by 50% as Europe prepared for war. Pressure continued to build, and Europe soon would reach its breaking point.

On June 28, 1914, the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was visiting the city of Sarajevo, the capital of the Austrian region of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Meanwhile, six Yugoslav nationalists were preparing to assassinate the Archduke. As Ferdinand’s motorcade passed through the city, one assassin hurled at grenade toward him, missing although 20 onlookers were injured. More assassins were waiting ahead, but the motorcade sped past them before they could react.

The Archduke, although shaken, continued with the day. He halted his plans to visit the people injured during the explosion at the Sarajevo hospital. After he left, his convoy turned down the wrong street, where Gavrilo Princip, one of the assassins, was coincidentally standing with a pistol in hand. He aimed and fired towards Ferdinand, killing both he and his wife.

The government of Austria tried to use the Archduke’s murder to their advantage. They correctly suspected that Serbian officials were involved in the assassination. On July 23, they sent the Serbian government the July Ultimatum, ten demands that were created to be unacceptable, in an attempt to start a war. Serbia refused to accept the ultimatum, and on July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war. Serbia’s ally, Russia, began to mobilize their army against Austria-Hungary and its ally, the German Empire, who demanded Russia stop. Russia refused, causing Germany to declare war. This long chain reaction eventually led to Russia, France, the United Kingdom, many other European nations, and eventually the United States, known as the Allies, fighting against Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria, known as the Central Powers.

European alliances at the outbreak of World War I

From the beginning of the war, Austria-Hungary was immediately in a bad position. They were unable to sustain themselves agriculturally, and the nations that once provided most of their food, Russia and Romania, were now their enemies. The war had decreased their wheat harvests even further, spreading hunger throughout the nation.

Austria-Hungary at the beginning of World War I

The Austrian military wasn’t faring well either. They had experienced multiple defeats against the Russian army, forcing them to depend on Germany for assistance. Things became even more difficult in 1915 when Italy joined the allies and created a new front on Austria-Hungary’s southern border. The Austro-Hungarian army began to have supply shortages, making it difficult to fight.

In 1918 protests arose across the nation, calling for food and peace. Soon the Austro-Hungarian army and navy began to experience mutinies, lessening their power in the war even further. The nation became more divided as the culturally different regions of the empire saw support nationalist movements significantly rise. The last realm of the Habsburgs was collapsing. By October, all hope was lost for the empire. On the 14th, the Austrian foreign minister, Stephan Buri├ín von Rajecz, asked the allies for a truce based on Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. On October 16, the Austrian Emperor Karl issued a manifesto that would give the regions of Austria-Hungary more autonomy and their own national council, and allow the Polish regions to join a Polish state.

Four days after von Rajecz sent for a truce, the US Secretary of State Robert Lansing respond by essentially saying that the Allies would not consider a peace deal unless Austria-Hungary recognized the complete independence of the Czechs, Poles, Slovak, and South Slavs. This reply was the demise of the Austrian Empire, as peace would not happen unless the whole empire was dissolved. By the end of October, each of these nationalities declared independence, and the Habsburg monarchy was no more.

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