History of Austria

THE FINAL YEARS OF THE EMPIRE AND WORLD WAR I

The Crisis over Bosnia and Hercegovina

Around 1906 the Balkans again became the focus of great-power rivalry, as Russia renewed its interest in the Balkans and became Serbia's great-power patron. A crisis erupted in 1908, when Turkey began to be reorganized as a constitutional state. Bosnia and Hercegovina, which was Turkish territory under Austro-Hungarian administration, was invited to send delegates to the new Turkish parliament. Austria-Hungary responded by formally annexing Bosnia and Hercegovina in violation of various international agreements. It quelled Turkey's objections with financial compensation. But by alienating Russia and Italy, the annexation was a costly diplomatic victory for Austria-Hungary at a time when the military alliance system of Europe was moving against it. Britain had resolved colonial rivalries with both France and Russia, paving the way for the cooperation of the three countries in the Triple Entente.

Following the crisis over Bosnia and Hercegovina, Russia encouraged the independent Balkan states to form what was intended to be an anti-Austro-Hungarian coalition. But the new coalition, called the Balkan League, was more interested in partitioning the remaining Turkish territories in the Balkans, and it defeated Turkey in the First Balkan War in 1912. The Balkan allies turned on each other in 1913 in a war over the division of the former Turkish territories. In this Second Balkan War, Serbia doubled both its territory and its population.

World War I

Austria-Hungary considered the newly enlarged and Russian-backed Serbia to be the principal threat to its security because Serbian military intelligence supported anti-Habsburg groups and activities in Bosnia and Hercegovina. Thus, when the heir to the Habsburg crown, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo by Bosnian nationalists on June 28, 1914, the presumption of Serbian complicity was strong. The idea of a preemptive war against Serbia was not new in Vienna, and, despite the weak pretext, Germany indicated a willingness to back its ally.

On July 23, Austria-Hungary presented Serbia with an ultimatum designed to be rejected. The key demands were that Serbia suppress anti-Habsburg activities, organizations, and propaganda and that Habsburg officials be permitted to join in the Serbian investigation of the assassination. Serbia responded negatively but appeared conciliatory. Nonetheless, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28 without further consultations with Germany.

Russia's decision to mobilize on July 30 escalated the war beyond a regional conflict by bringing into play the system of European alliances. Because German war strategy depended on avoiding a two-front war, Germany had to defeat France before Russia could fully mobilize. Thus, Germany responded to Russia's mobilization by immediately declaring war on France and Russia. On August 4, Britain declared war on Germany. On August 6, Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia. Finally, on August 12, France and Britain declared war on Austria-Hungary.

Once the major powers were engaged, they sought to enlist the support of the smaller powers. Despite its partnership with Austria-Hungary and Germany in the Triple Alliance, Italy was not bound by that treaty to join the war, and it declared its neutrality. Germany pressed Austria-Hungary unsuccessfully to cede to Italy Austrian territories it desired, in order to win Italian support. Because the Triple Entente powers readily promised transfer of the territories in the event of victory, Italy entered the war on their side in April 1915.

Although German and Austro-Hungarian military victories in the east during the spring of 1915 overcame the military disasters that Austria-Hungary experienced early in the war, the empire's internal economic situation steadily grew more precarious. Austria-Hungary was not prepared for a long and costly war.

The death of Emperor Franz Joseph on November 21, 1916, deprived Austria-Hungary of his symbolic unifying presence. His twenty-nine-year-old grand-nephew Karl (r. 1916-18) was unprepared for his role as emperor. But by this time, the future of the monarchy no longer depended on what the emperor did; rather, its fate hinged on the outcome of the war. Despite revolutionary Russia's withdrawal from the war, military success in the east could not counter events in the west. The United States had entered the war on the side of the Allies in April 1917, and with the failure of its military offensive in the spring of 1918, Germany was no longer capable of continuing the war.

The End of the Habsburg Empire and the Birth of the Austrian Republic

The dismantling of the Habsburg Empire had not been an objective of the Allies. Following the collapse of the tsarist government in Russia, however, the Allies increasingly portrayed the war as pitting freedom and democracy against oppression and autocracy. This strategy benefited the representatives of Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, and other nationalist committees-in-exile, which skillfully played on the theme of self-determination expressed in United States president Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points. Austria-Hungary was unable to put forward a meaningful program of reform while still preserving the monarchy and so could not successfully resist the centrifugal forces pulling it apart. By mid-1918 the Allies began recognizing the national committees-in-exile and made plans for an independent Poland and Czechoslovakia. By October 1918, when the Austro-Hungarian government was seeking an armistice, control of the empire's constituent lands was passing to national committees, including one representing German Austrians.

On October 21, German Austrian delegates to the Austrian parliament voted to establish an Austrian state incorporating all districts inhabited by ethnic Germans. At the end of the month, the delegates established a coalition provisional government. On November 3, imperial authorities signed an armistice, bringing Austro-Hungarian participation in World War I to an official end. On November 11, Karl renounced any role in the new Austrian state, and the next day the provisional government issued a constitution for the German Austrian Republic.

Austria History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress