14/9/1918 Emperor Karl seeks peace, in vain

Austria-Hungary is falling apart. Four years of war have led to unimaginable privations on the home front and an accentuation of divisions between regions and ethnicities as well as between town and countryside. The army is increasingly unable to continue fighting thanks to supply problems, a breakdown of its cohesion and a collapse in morale following the failure of the Piave offensive.

Emperor Karl and his government fear that the war’s continuance will lead to revolution and social collapse. They have pressed the Germans to seek peace on whatever terms can be obtained, but the Kaiser‘s government and generals have prevaricated. While the Germans are on the back foot on the Western Front, their domestic situation is not quite so disastrous as Austria-Hungary’s, so they do not feel under quite the same pressure. While Emperor Karl is seeking peace at any price, the Germans are still hoping to retain the gains of 1914, terms which are anathema to the Allies.

With Germany’s Ludendorff still talking of pursuing the war to victory, Emperor Karl decides that he has to act. He has Burián, his foreign minister, issue an appeal for peace to the Allies. But alas, the effort avails him nought. The Allies see negotiations with Austria-Hungary as a waste of time, as their real enemy is Germany. And this latest attempt at negotiations serves only to further poison relations between Berlin and Vienna.

Emperor Karl (Tradical (@NoTrueScotist) on Twitter)

1/7/1918 Writing on the wall for Austria-Hungary as France declares support for an independent Czechoslovakia

In 1914 Austria-Hungary’s leaders pushed for war with Serbia in the hope that it would restore the Habsburg Empire’s fortunes and reverse its long decline. Events since then have not progressed entirely to their satisfaction, with the underperformance of the Austro-Hungarian military turning the Empire into little more than a client state of the Germans. Now its continued existence is increasingly threatened. The travails of war have led to great hardships and discontent and the disaster at the Piave has shattered what remained of the Empire’s prestige, with Emperor Karl himself being blamed for the debacle. Now the various ethnicities and peoples that make up the Empire are restless, with many wishing to separate themselves from the Habsburgs.

The Allies meanwhile are increasingly intent on breaking up the Empire. In his Fourteen Points, Wilson had proposed that Austria-Hungary’s peoples should have every possible opportunity for autonomous development. Since then the US President’s views have developed and how he argues that “all branches of the Slav race should be completely free from German and Austrian rule”. Talk of joining Serbia with Austria-Hungary’s southern Slav territories to create a new state (Yugoslavia) is finding a receptive audience in most Allied capitals, with the notable exception of Italy. Meanwhile in Paris the cause of Czechoslovakia is being advanced by exiled Czech nationalist Tomáš Masaryk and his Czechoslovak National Committee. Today they achieve a diplomatic breakthrough, with the French government formally recognising them as the representatives of the Czechoslovak nation. With the Allies also talking of attaching Galicia to a newly independent Poland, it looks like there will not be much left of Austria-Hungary if the Allies win the war.

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Tomáš Masaryk (Českobudějovický deník: Jihočeské kalné ráno…)

23/6/1918 Piave: for Italy a triumph, for Austria-Hungary disaster #1918Live

The Battle of the Piave is now over. The Austro-Hungarians have retreated to the east bank of the river having failed to break out of their bridgeheads. The Italians hail this “Battle of the Solstice” as a great victory: it shows that their army is able to fight again, the stain of Caporetto now erased. For the Austro-Hungarians meanwhile the battle is a disaster, laying bare the organisational failures that led to soldiers going into battle underfed and without adequate supplies.

The human losses of the fighting are considerable. The Italians suffer around 85,000 casualties, of whom around half were captured by the enemy and now face starvation (the Italian authorities forbid the sending of food parcels to their prisoners and the Austro-Hungarians are struggling to feed their own soldiers, let alone those of the enemy). Austro-Hungarian losses are greater, at around 118,000, with a much higher proportion of these killed or wounded.

The failed offensive severely dents the prestige of Emperor Karl, the army’s commander. Parliamentarians in Austria and Hungary condemn the foolhardiness the inadequately prepared venture. Wider discontent with the conduct of the war and the Empire itself spreads further through its subject peoples.

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Italian soldiers at the front (Wikipedia: Second Battle of the Piave River)

Emperor Karl (Wikipedia)

11/5/1918 Emperor Karl takes his punishment #1918Live

The revelation that Emperor Karl of Austria-Hungary had been carrying out secret negotiations with the Allies has created a rift between the Emperor and his German allies. Karl’s position is an extremely awkward one, given Austria-Hungary’s dependency on Germany. Today he meets Kaiser Wilhelm at the German army’s headquarters at Spa in Belgium. Wilhelm is willing to put the Sixtus Affair behind him, but he extracts a price: Austria-Hungary will have to sign up to Germany’s Mitteleuropa plan, so binding the empire to Germany that it will become little more than a vassal state, akin in some ways to the status now enjoyed by defeated Romania. Germany also demands that Austria-Hungary prepare and launch a new offensive against the Italians, to draw Allied forces away from the Western Front.

Karl has no option but to accept his country’s complete subordination to its northern neighbour. He prepares to return home to tell his generals to start planning an attack across the Piave.

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Austrian magazine report on Karl’s visit to Spa (The World of the Habsburgs – The Sixtus Affair: A major diplomatic débacle)

28/4/1918 The Austro-Hungarian army’s nationalities problem #1918Live

Austria-Hungary is a large multi-national empire. At the start of the war the army was largely organised on linguistic and regional lines, so that men from one place who all spoke the same language were placed in units together. The downside of this approach is that some nationalities of the empire are (or are deemed to be) less loyal than others. Czechs are seen as particularly disloyal and putting them together in all-Czech units appears only to encourage their disaffection, leading to malingering and desertion (with desertion on the Eastern Front being so great that Russia was able to form a Czech Legion to fight on its side against Austria-Hungary). Serbs and Romanians are also regarded with suspicion by the authorities.

In an effort to prevent military unrest, the army of Austria-Hungary is now being reorganised. Units will henceforth contain men from across the empire. This will hopefully make it harder for disaffected minorities to work together and may also engender a greater sense of pan-empire nationalism in the army.

There are of course downsides to this reorganisation. The esprit de corps of units is undermined by throwing disparate elements together. Combining men who speak different languages together also undermines unit effectiveness. And the elite units of Slovenes and Croats that had fought so well against the Italians are now diluted by the addition of more unruly elements. The danger of this reorganisation is that it might spread the bacillus of disaffection throughout the entire army instead of keeping it safely isolated.

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Bosnian officers in the Austro-Hungarian army (Austro-Hungarian Land Forces 1848-1918: The Bosnians)

28/4/1918 Gavrilo Princip dies

Do you remember Gavrilo Princip? Back in 1914 he shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, triggering the crisis that led the outbreak of war. Princip was convicted of murder but, being under 20 years of age, was too young for the death penalty and was given a 20 year prison sentence. Held in harsh conditions, his health has deteriorated. His right arm had to be amputated while disease and malnutrition has led to him wasting away. Today finally he dies of consumption.

Princip expressed sorrow for having also killed Sophie of Chotek, Franz Ferdinand’s wife, thereby orphaning their children. He never accepted responsibility for having plunged Europe into conflict, blaming German ambition for having started the war.

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Gavrilo Princip (Wikipedia)

22/4/1918 Cracow: pogroms and inter-communal violence #1918Live

In Austro-Hungarian Cracow, the tensions of war have led to a disturbing outbreak of intercommunal tensions. Enraged by food shortages, Polish citizens of the town blame not the war, the authorities or the capitalist class but their Jewish fellow citizens, accusing them of controlling the black market and keeping themselves well fed while everyone else goes hungry. Tensions boiled over a few days ago when a mob descended on the city’s Jewish quarter to pillage local shops and abuse the quarter’s inhabitants. The police stood by on that occasion so Cracow’s Jews have taken steps to defend themselves from future outrages. Attempts to extract revenge lead to further outbreaks of violence, with traders at a flea market attacked by club-bearing Jewish youths.

By now the army has been called in to restore order, but the city remains in a tumult. The one thing now uniting the Polish and Jewish citizens of the town is a loathing for the Habsburg authorities. Soldiers find themselves stoned and beaten by angry townsfolk; there are even reports of shots being fired against them.

The situation in Cracow is extreme, but it is emblematic of much that is happening across Austria-Hungary. The pressures and privations of war have caused an unravelling of the ties binding the multi-ethnic empire together, with it looking like Austria-Hungary’s disintegration is inevitable if the war continues for much longer.