How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
THIS August eighteenth ends a century since the birth of Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria. And three months later fourteen years will have passed since his death. Although his unhappy grand-nephew Charles succeeded him on the throne, Francis Joseph nevertheless was the last scion of the House of Hapsburg to rule powerfully over his empire. Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary, Archduke of Lower and Upper Austria, Duke of Salzburg, Prince of Tyrol, King of Bohemia, Marquess of Moravia, and so on, sounds the long title which the Chancery in Vienna carefully composed in the year 1804, when Emperor Francis founded the new Austrian imperial dignity to replace the full splendor of the crown of the Holy Roman Empire which had come down to him since Charlemagne. For he had become disgusted with it in consequence of the continual victories of Napoleon Bonaparte over his own and the Russian and Prussian armies, which had torn up the whole body of the sacred Empire and had taken all the sense out of the highest dignity in Christendom. He was the grandson of that good Emperor Francis, who vividly remembered his grandmother Maria Theresa, the Hungarian queen, and he carried her memory and that of the most enlightened monarch of this age, Joseph II, far into the nineteenth century. Heir and representative of the most exalted idea of rulership, he is the man who -- alone -- signed the ultimatum to Serbia and consequently declared war on July 30, 1914, thereby letting loose the pandemonium of the World War.
I still see him as he stood on the entrance of the open stairs leading up to his rooms in the old Castle of Schoenbrunn on the afternoon of the day of his return from Ischl after the war declaration had been promulgated: he was the same man for whom Field-Marshal Radetzky had reconquered Venice and Milan sixty-six years before, the same whom that gigantic despot of Russia, Nicholas I, had loved like a son, restoring to him Kossuth's rebellious Hungary in 1840, the same to whom Frederick William IV, his uncle, had written most tender letters of welcome when the eighteen-year-old boy had been put on the throne to replace his abdicating uncle; against him fought Garibaldi and Cavour, Napoleon III and ultimately Bismarck. Here now he stood, lord over fifty-two millions of subjects, eighty-four years old, bent by age but yet vigorous before the crowd of the German members of parliament come to hail the Emperor on that serious day. He listened to the words of the President of the House of Deputies and nodded, saying: "You are thus satisfied with what has happened?" Then he turned and walked up the stairs.
When all of us who lived many decades under this old man's sceptre now remember the hundredth anniversary of his birth, we unavoidably fall into a kind of historic reverie and of a sudden that whole world of old Austria rises up before us quick and vivid. And instantly we feel what a short time indeed a century is. Our whole life and the lives of our fathers and grandfathers fill that century almost to overflowing. We have lived through all that and still we are alive. For us that whole world of great events in peace and war, of great names and powerful men and of the rivalry of so many races and peoples united into one empire, in short, of all that reaches from Maria Theresa's blessed memories down to the World War: this is the historic Austria, our old world which bred us and shaped us and made our life what it has become. And always Francis Joseph stands in the midst of this many-colored, fine old picture that our memory retains -- piously or cynically -- just as we have known him from the old-fashioned likenesses of his childhood and the first years of his reign; and then we recollect him as he was later and almost until the last of his days, standing tall, erect, almost invisibly distancing himself from everybody, watchful and never shrinking his royal work, a dignified figure, every inch a ruler of men and lands.
This whole world of old Austria has now gone forever and with it no doubt the last remnant of old Europe. The last vestiges of its ancien régime have passed, no more to return. What began in 1789 in Paris was brought to an end in Vienna in 1918. The World War and the revolution it engendered separates for all time the past history of Christian Europe from all that the next centuries will make the white race do and suffer and become in its old home.
It is not sufficiently realized in our day that one of the biggest books of history was forcibly closed when the three great eastern empires of Europe collapsed as by one stroke: the RussianTsarist Empire, the Empire of the Hapsburgs, and the Khalifate of the Turkish Sultan. The Bolshevist Revolution and the creation of a reformed, unbelieving, Islamic Turkish state and dictatorship are undoubtedly prodigious experiments of the modern man, of the sons of our technical age, who have begun to conceive the life of nations and their cultures as mere mechanisms which you best destroy when you have found out how to replace them by new, more scientific -- i. e., rationalist -- constructions of ideas, principles, rules and other products of science applied to the mastery of human life, its forces and frailties, its emotions and follies, its dreams, instincts and propensities. Beside these two great volcanic eruptions the breakdown of the Hapsburg Empire strikes one as something quite different: almost as the last scene in a great play staged by a perfect artist, representing diversified realizations of a quite distinctive, peculiar civilization dating from far back.
There was no bloodshed in Austria during its sudden dismemberment, almost no show of passions; deep emotions were no doubt roused by what was going on on the public stage and at the same time in the life of each one of millions of persons by the tearing down of a whole system of central administration and government almost four hundred years old. In spite of the terrible depression which four years of starvation and the loss of many hundred thousands on the battlefields and in the hospitals had produced in so many hearts, in spite of the sudden victory of every possible form of up-to-date radicalism, of republicanism, nationalism, socialism, public order was unfailingly maintained in the big towns. Neither the triumph of the victorious Slav nationalities in the northwest and northeast and southeast parts of the Empire, nor that of the Social Democratic masses in Vienna and Prague, nor the fear and anxiety of the German middle classes about the future ever brought about a transgression of the limits of public peace and decency. Social order, threatened from all sides, remained on the whole undisturbed. One did not hear of outrageous fights between the different races where they lived together and their interests clashed. We watched rise, as it were, phantoms becoming flesh and blood by a miracle, the new national states heralded during the last weeks of the war. Czechoslovakia, Jugoslavia, Poland constituted themselves, drawing without undue haste the frontiers between their dominions; gradually they became real, designated by slender lines of customs officers and constables. Quite different indeed is the picture of events in Hungary. There surged the bloody farce of an outgrowth of Russian Bolshevism, followed after three months by a not much less bloody reaction of the old aristocratic classes, taking the reins of power into their hands again in that stump of the old great kingdom which was left to the Magyars at the Armistice.
The peace treaties corroborated and made permanent what the "liberated" nationalities had executed immediately after the Armistice. The obliteration of the House of Austria was perfect: the veto of the peace treaties against the union of German-Austria with the German Republic preserved the old name of Austria like a thin shadow of the old grandeur of the House of Austria, surviving merely as the head in the alphabetic list of the states of Europe.
The great difference between the catastrophes in Russia and in Turkey on the one side and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy on the other is the fact that only the latter entirely concerns European political order and civilization. The hour of Turkish Islamic power in Europe has long gone. Russia did not acquire importance for European politics nor did it enter the orbit of European culture before the second half of the eighteenth century. But the House of Austria had been a decisive factor in the development of Europe as a whole for more than six centuries. By its collapse one of the fundamentals of the European order as it had stood since mediæval times was broken like a mighty stone out of a wall. For the development of the political order of Europe during a thousand years shows two great principles at work: first, the unfolding of specific national cultures of single peoples in connection with their own language, their own manner of thinking and feeling; secondly, the tendency to unite the separate territories and peoples into largely extended empires.
Thus the system of the so-called Great Powers of Europe, which grew up beginning in the seventeenth century, is expressed in the history of the great dynasties which formed those large states and powers. It is not until the nineteenth century that this whole system appears to be influenced by that new idea of nationality which arose out of the French Revolution. But the rapid rise of modern national feeling as the expression of the language and the specific character of each nationality in art and literature, in general ways of living and in law, intensified the national idea in the political order of Europe so strongly that in the first half of the nineteenth century it surpassed in strength the merely political tendencies of the time, the liberalism and democracy created by the French Revolution. Or it might be better put in this way: nationalism and radicalism quickly become complementary forces, each fostering the growth of the other. The Italian and German movement for national unity, the Belgian Revolution, the longing of the Poles for the restoration of their historic state, the desire for the political unification of the Greek nationality, were as many proofs of the irresistible force of the new ideal of European mankind to live in purely national states and to destroy what was opposed to this principle. After 1848 it threatened the existence of the super-national empire of the Hapsburgs, which represented the last outgrowth of the mediaeval ideal of supreme rulership, founded in the common Christian faith but not connected with one single nationality.
Whoever realizes this historic position of the House of Austria immediately grasps one of the great consequences of its complete obliteration for the European world of today. Since the beginning of the sixteenth century Austria always had been an international, supernational and conservative power, conservative because it strove before all to maintain the old European order out of which it had risen to the highest place. This finds fullest expression in the House of Austria's unceasing fight against that first great revolution, which is called the Reformation. It also maintained its old conception of supreme mundane power as it was developed out of the dissolution of the feudal age in Spain and in Germany. The restitution of the glory and power of the old Holy Roman Empire was not the object of the policy of the House of Hapsburg. Indeed its leaders were "modernist" in politics when they first arose in the fourteenth century. Striving ever to increase their dynastic and territorial power, they sought to connect their dynasty with the crown of the decaying Holy Roman Empire. That crown became practically the hereditary possession of the House from the middle of the fifteenth century. From the very first the pure dynastic idea was predominant for every one of the succeeding emperors and sovereign lords. The concentration of the interests of the dynasty in the hands of each succeeding emperor, and his steady maintenance of those interests, intensified the strength of the dynasty and increased its orbit continually.
The methods which the Hapsburgs employed, too, were preeminently conservative. They added new territories to old ones by treaties, marriages, inheritances, not often by wars or by forcible subjection. Yet they made many wars in order to preserve what they possessed, to realize their legal claims and, before all, to fight for the old Church: this and the defense of Christian Europe against the power of Islam were the great causes for which they stood firm as a rock. They were part and parcel of their basic dynastic idea. In consequence of the imperial family policy, the greatest European wars of past centuries arose as wars for the Austrian succession. In fact, the first great war of this kind, the war of France and her allies against the union of the Spanish and German lines of the House of Austria, became the permanent basis for the division of Europe into the Great Powers of modern times.
The second great period of Austria's efficacy as the mainstay of conservatism was the Napoleonic age; nobody resisted the French Revolution and its offshoots so persistently as the House of Austria. And after the overthrow of Napoleon, Emperor Francis and his great Chancellor, Prince Metternich, made Austria the cornerstone of reaction against the modern ideas which the French Revolution had elicited. Prince Metternich boasted himself the faithful warden, the rocher de bronze of the great system of law and order in Europe laid down by the Congress of Vienna. At the same time resistance against modern political ideas by an elaborate system of police supervision and repression had become the essence of the inner policy of government in all the lands belonging to the House of Austria. But when the ideas and movements which rose in the west and south of Europe against the conservatism of the great dynasties broke through the dikes, the old House was almost swept off its feet. Nationalism and liberalism coöperated and the last hour of the Empire seemed to have come. It was a decisive fact, not only for the Hapsburg lands but for the whole of Europe, that the new leader of the House, the eighteen-year-old Archduke Francis Joseph, showed himself from the beginning an astoundingly faithful adept in the dynasty's absolutist traditions. His first Prime Minister, the providential man, Prince Schwarzenberg, broke the Viennese revolution, and by the military successes of Marshal Radetzky and by his own reckless diplomacy restored in full Austria's historic rights in Italy and Germany and its dominating position on the whole continent. Becoming the practical educator of the boy monarch, he first taught him and then strengthened in him confidence in the tenets of that kind of modernist absolutism which had been created by the Napoleonic system of imperial rule: that is, military power based on a large conscript army, strong central government by bureaucracy, and unification of the whole administrative system based upon a constabulary under military discipline.
I shall not enlarge here on the details of Francis Joseph's political education or on his development as an actual ruler. I wish only to demonstrate those traits in his mental individuality and character that predestined him ultimately to become the destroyer of his Empire and his House.
Francis Joseph was a curious combination of certain prominent features of mind and character of the two dynasties from whom he descended, the Hapsburgs and the family of Duke Francis of Lorraine, Maria Theresa's husband. Joseph II, son and successor of the great Empress, showed almost none of the characteristic qualities of his maternal ancestors. A study of his career and of his character shows him the genuine son of his French father. Joseph II was the only member of the House of Austria who was a fervent rationalist in the sense of his time. He was the only ruler of the House of Austria who delighted during all his life in promoting and executing radical reforms in almost every field of social, economic and political life. He lacked any reverence for the old, the historic, the traditional. He called himself the "appreciator" of mankind and his principal aim was to promote the happiness of the peoples he ruled by realizing the ideas of reform which the contemporary "encyclopædic philosophers" in France had taught him. He was, if I may be permitted to say so, a kind of imperial Thomas Jefferson, and of course at the same time an unshakable believer in his own absolutist rulership. His nephew and successor, Emperor Francis, by contrast showed a strong resemblance to his old Hapsburg ancestors: in his rigid adherence to the exalted notion of the dynastic principle, in his headstrong perseverance in what he called his principles of government, coupled with a shrewd opportunism in small things. But before all he had a true conservative mind, distrusting all innovations a priori.
Francis Joseph, fourth of the Hapsburg-Lorraine emperors, represented a curious mixing of many of the features of mind and character of both lines of his paternal ancestors. He was far from those pompous and fanatical Ferdinands of the seventeenth century, though he retained the exaggerated ideas of those baroque rulers regarding the supreme position of the House of Austria in the world. On the other hand, he derived his conspicuous chivalry and a certain habitual impatience from his French forbears. The reforming spirit of Joseph II was quite strange to him, but in his youthful days he resembled him in his self-confidence and like his famous ancestor he had no respect for the historic and traditional element in government and life. He was fundamentally a cool and sober mind, almost wholly devoid of imaginative power, a realist, looking dryly at the world and at his work. Like his predecessors, he was convinced from the first of his divine right of unlimited monarchical power, but in his sober sense he also was aware that his rule must, before all, produce the best possible results for the peoples of his realm. He never doubted that the one great duty laid upon him was to attain this end. Yet up to the end he did not doubt that his empire, composed of so many different races and lands, could be governed successfully only by a hereditary monarch and according to his absolute will. And this is a decisive point to understand if one is to do justice to the clear but rather complex mentality of Francis Joseph: as a convinced absolutist he yet was never a true conservative. This was shown in the most conspicuous way when, on the advice of his first Prime Minister, he threw overboard the constitution which he had promulgated five months after ascending the throne, and at the same time abolished the constitution of Hungary and canceled by one stroke of the pen all the historic rights of his Austrian provinces. He felt not the slightest scruple in abolishing those old rights, on which were based all the legal titles for his own rulership, his royal crowns of Hungary and Bohemia and his sovereignty in all the other old possessions of his far-reaching territories.
From the beginning Francis Joseph must be understood as being fully convinced that he was doing the right thing when with all his strength he opposed all modern ideas. He was afraid of them and repudiated them. His whole reign remains a fight against them, and above everything against the modern dogma of popular self-government laid down in written constitutions. He was not less opposed to the theory of provincial, local and racial autonomy, ideas to which the conservative nobility of Austria at first strove to win him over. His unfortunate foreign policy and his military defeats then forced him to compromise with both these fundamental ideas. But his fate was decided by the compromise which the Magyars obliged him to accept after the victory of the Prussian armies in 1866. For from that event dated the rise of the absolutism of the Magyar race in Hungary, and its oligarchical parliamentary government, in place of his personal absolutism. In consequence thereof the primitive confidence of the non-Magyar nationalities of Hungary in the old, highly respected and exalted figure of the Hapsburg emperor became more and more weakened, until it finally disappeared entirely during the World War. In the western part of his empire, in Austria proper, Francis Joseph had inaugurated modern constitutional life by a constitution which favored and satisfied only the Germans, who formed not much more than one-third of the whole population of the seventeen historic provinces into which Austria was divided. The growing resistance of the Slavs against the centralist system of administration was well understood by Francis Joseph, who readily made use of it to curb the liberal tendencies of the German middle classes. But he never realized that his empire could be best safeguarded by a perfect system of administrative decentralization and by the fullest realization of the principles of equality of all nations on the basis of local autonomy. Thus he closed the door against a reconciliation of the struggling nationalities of his empire. He could have opened this door in the first half of his reign easily, in accordance with the conservative point of view represented by the leaders of the aristocracy, but this did not satisfy his pride; he believed in his capacity to rule by his own will. In the last quarter of his century he could have attained a restoration of the vitality of the House of Austria if he would have accepted the federal principle as the basis of a modern empire. The fact that when he was seventy-seven years old he practically decreed for Austria the most modern democratic franchise as the basis of constitutional life, showed that he finally had become accessible to ideas of thorough reform. But it was too late in life for him to overcome that terrible medley of rival social, economic, and national forces developed by the forty years of his pseudo-constitutional régime -- a régime that had produced the endless battle of all the minor nationalities against the privileged races of the empire, the Germans, the Magyars and the Poles.
Whoever surveys the whole process of the formation of modern political civilization in Europe recognizes that its dynamics must be seen in the reciprocal effects of centripetal and centrifugal tendencies. The imperial idea derived from ancient Roman history started the first main tendency, the rise of specific national and racial individualities the second. The dynastic power of the House of Austria evolved in the orbit of the old imperialist idea as a supernational power based on the Catholic faith of almost all its subjects and serving the whole continent by successfully repelling the Turkish aggression. After these historic reasons of existence had disappeared, new reasons slowly grew up: above all the economic fact that Austria formed a single large area of internal free trade and economic self-sufficiency. Thereby the empire aided the efforts of modern technical and economic progress in the interest of all the nations comprised within it. Politically, as a great power during the nineteenth century Austria rendered a great service to the world in safeguarding that delicate but indispensable basis of European peace, the principle of the balance of power.
In all respects the Emperor's policy failed: by the overweening attitude of the Magyars toward all non-Magyar races in Hungary, by the uncompromising stand of the German parties and the leading bureaucracy towards Czechs and Southern Slavs after the fall of Count Taaffe's long experiment of national reconciliation, and in consequence of the permanent fight between the various nationalities and of them all against the governing central bureaucracy. The occupation of the two Turkish provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1878, by creating a half-hearted new "forward policy" of Austria in the Balkans, had engendered the lasting hostility of Tsarist and Pan-Slav Russia and led up to the act of annexation of those lands, which showed that the alliance of Hapsburg-Lorraine with Hohenzollern was the last diplomatic and military safeguard for the maintenance of the empire. When finally the World War broke out, originating in the Balkan policy of Austria-Hungary, faith in the possibility of preserving the existence of it had long begun to disappear inside and outside of the empire. Thus after the death of Francis Joseph the decomposition of the old House of Austria became unavoidable despite the veil with which the rigid dictatorship of the war government tried to cover it.
The pri mitive raison d'être of the Dual Empire appeared already abolished when at the beginnning of the war Hungary turned her back on the famine in the western half of the empire, and still more when in the last year of the war the scanty provisions of food formed the object of a permanent struggle between the Austrian provinces and between the towns and the country. Then when the hopes which the Entente raised in the minds of the Poles, Czechs and Jugoslavs began to be realized, the roots of loyalty began to die in the army, which to the last, as it were, personified the empire and its dynasty.
The incoherent and contradictory attempts of the inexperienced young successor of Francis Joseph, tending as they did to replace his political system by reforming the empire into a voluntary aggregation of separate national states, were frustrated from the start by the hostility of the war leaders of Germany and by the veto of the Magyars. Nothing could any longer stop the final stage of the process of dissolution of the Dual Empire when at last the military strength of Germany began to crumble. Of the old supernational rule of the Hapsburgs nothing remained when, as by the wave of a magic wand, the new national states heralded by British, French and Italian propaganda rose out of the mist which in those last weeks covered the final descent of the Central Powers to destruction.
Democratic nationalism, maddened by four years of war, ultimately exploded the old dynastic union which Magyar dualism had been denaturing for fifty years. And now a great task stands before the peoples and governments of the succession states: that is, to proceed towards a new union of Central Europe, adequate to modern ideas of liberty and the equality of all nations. The House of Austria in the nineteenth century never did realize this problem, and never attempted seriously to solve it. The fate of democracy in this part of Europe depends upon its readiness and ability to solve what the obliterated House of Austria left unsolved.