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Editor's Note: The following article describes a hitherto unrevealed incident in the secret peace parleys which the Emperor Charles of Austria-Hungary had with the Allies shortly after his accession to the throne on November 23, 1916.
The best known of these was the so-called Sixtus Affair, in which the Empress Zita's brothers, Prince Sixtus and Prince Xavier of Bourbon-Parma, served as intermediaries. On March 23, 1917, the Bourbon Princes, who always considered themselves Frenchmen, met the Emperor and Empress at Laxenburg, near Vienna, and presented a four-point proposal which Poincaré and Briand had approved as the basis for a separate peace between Austria-Hungary and the Allies. The terms were that Austria-Hungary should: 1, recognize France's right to Alsace-Lorraine; 2, agree to the reëstablishment of Belgian sovereignty and the restoration of the ruling Belgian house; 3, agree to reestablish the Serbian monarchy, give it an outlet to the Adriatic and transfer to it those portions of Albania then occupied by Austrian troops; and 4, disinterest itself in Russia's claims to Constantinople. Foreign Minister Czernin received these proposals coldly. The Emperor, however, seemed pleased at such relatively easy terms. He gave the Princes an autograph letter in which he accepted the first three points but reserved his decision on the fourth because of the unsettled state of affairs in Russia.
Later in March, Briand was replaced in the French Foreign Office by Ribot, who held more uncompromising views regarding French war aims. He informed Lloyd George of the negotiations and they agreed that Italy must also be sounded out. Sonnino insisted that the promises of the Treaty of London be adhered to literally in any settlement. The Emperor Charles on May 9 wrote a second autograph letter disposing of possible Italian objections. But on June 3 Italy proclaimed a protectorate over Albania, thus infringing the third of the original French proposals. In a speech before the Chamber on June 5, Ribot hinted that he was through with secret diplomacy.
There were other proposals which Count Armand, a French officer, presented about this time to Count Revertera, an Austrian diplomat, on behalf of the French Army. These suggested treating Germany so harshly that Charles did not even communicate them to the German Kaiser, and the negotiations broke off.
There followed, between August and September 1917, the attempt from the Austro-Hungarian side to get into touch with French authorities which Major de Hevesy describes in the article below.
AFTER the secret peace negotiations carried on with France by Prince Sixtus of Bourbon-Parma failed in April 1917, the Emperor Charles of Austria-Hungary made still another attempt to end the war. The Sixtus Affair is well known. The second attempt has not been revealed until now. The Archduke Otto of Habsburg, writing in FOREIGN AFFAIRS for January 1942, has stated that his father, the Emperor Charles, would have accepted a separate peace if Germany had refused to negotiate. I can confirm that statement, as the Emperor charged me with negotiating such a peace.
My contact with His Majesty was brought about by the war. In the spring of 1916 I was a Captain of cavalry and aide-de-camp to the chief of the 11th Army in the Tyrol. In this capacity I had to deal often with the commander of the 20th Corps, the Archduke Charles, then heir to the throne. He knew that I had spent more than ten years of my life in France and that it was only my military oath which led me to serve under the Austro-Hungarian flag. By the end of 1916 the former commander of the 20th Corps had become Emperor. My duties also had changed. The post which I held in the spring of 1917 obliged me to keep awake every night. Those sleepless night hours under the wonderful bright sky of the South Tyrol induced reflections.
Then came an order calling me out of the trenches of the Brenta Valley for staff work at the War Ministry in Vienna. When I entered the restaurant of the old Bristol Hotel for the first time, a friend who was sitting alone invited me to his table. Count Joseph Hunyady, like myself, was a Captain of Hussars; he was also aide-de-camp to the Emperor. But his relationship to His Majesty was very different from that of the three or four other aides-de-camp. In the Emperor's youth Count Hunyady had been a kind of mentor to him and his position now was quite exceptional.
I was on sufficiently friendly terms with Hunyady to talk to him with complete frankness. I recalled how we all disliked the Germans. I spoke of how much peace would mean to our country. And I expressed the belief -- I had, of course, no knowledge whatsoever of the Sixtus Affair -- that nothing was being done to bring it about simply because those who could have initiated such a movement feared that they might be compromised. It was strange, I said, that men who were ready to risk life and limb in battle were not willing to endanger their reputations in the slightest degree even for such great issues as war and peace. I remember that I added, without much reflection, that if I, for instance, were charged with a peace mission to my friends in France, I would certainly be prepared to be disavowed and repudiated if that proved necessary. Hunyady and I lived near each other and we discussed this theme of a separate peace several times afterward.
On the evening of July 27 Hunyady surprised me by saying: "His Majesty orders you to see him tomorrow. Be ready at 7.30. I will take you to Reichenau." This was the summer residence of the Court, about 40 kilometers from Vienna. The next day when the time came Hunyady took care of everything. Among other things, he kept me concealed on the trip so that I should not be seen by the Hungarian Prime Minister, Count Maurice Esterhazy, and his Secretary of State, Bárczy, who were returning from Reichenau and with both of whom I was acquainted. I do not believe that anyone noticed my arrival. The aide-de-camp du jour, Major Ledochowsky, who was walking with the Emperor in the pine forest surrounding his villa, may have had instructions, for he disappeared promptly when our car approached.
The Emperor Charles was only 30 years old, but he possessed a vein of calm, delicate humor which is usually acquired at a much later age. He received me with a faint smile, saying, "Well, you want at any price to make peace for me?" I answered that an attempt to secure peace should be made, even though its result might be uncertain. This was all the more desirable because the Germans were giving us false information. I recalled that they had always assured us that America was preparing only against Japan and would never turn on us, yet that very thing had just happened. The fact that the Emperor Charles could not be held responsible for a war which had started prior to his reign was a favorable circumstance, I said, calculated to appeal particularly to the strong Anglo-Saxon sense of justice. If His Majesty ordered me to do so, I would try, with the help of French friends whom I could certainly find in Switzerland, to convey his views to the French Government and to lay the groundwork for further confidential contacts. I would also find out whom the Allies would agree to accept as our plenipotentiaries.
The Emperor was strongly in favor of peace. Perhaps I may be permitted to quote in the original what he said at the outset: "Ich bin gewiss bundestreu. Aber, das darf nicht so weit gehen, dass wir deshalb zu grunde gehen." (I am certainly faithful to my alliances. But that should not reach the point of our being annihilated.) He added that he did not want "any gain from the war." On the other hand, "it was his duty to keep what had been entrusted to him." These views were as normal as they were clear. In response to my suggestions, His Majesty agreed on the proposals to be presented to the Allies. As, for military reasons, an armistice was out of the question, the Swiss Government might suggest simply a 24-hour suspension of hostilities to permit delegates to gather around a conference table. The Allies could then declare solemnly that they would not, under any circumstances whatever, enter into peace negotiations with a ruler who had started the war (meaning the German Emperor), but that, as the Emperor Charles had had nothing to do with the outbreak of hostilities, they were ready to negotiate with him and "perhaps, through him, with the others." Such an arrangement would put us in an advantageous situation. Finally, the Emperor said that he would give orders in the proper quarters to enable me to reach Switzerland.
The first recipient of such orders would be the War Minister, as no officer was allowed to enter a neutral country without his written consent. The Minister, General Stöger-Steiner, called me to his office by telephone the next day. "I have to let you go to Switzerland," he said, "and without arousing attention. How shall we manage that?" It is unnecessary to repeat my reply here, but the matter was arranged. Incidentally, the Minister was simply executing an Imperial order and was unaware of the purpose of my journey. Such was his discretion that he did not once mention the Emperor in our conversation.
In the second place, it was necessary to make arrangements with an important inter-ministerial office, the so-called Kriegsüberwachungsamt, or Office of War Supervision, which had to deal, among other things, with passports. Things were easier here, since Colonel Horváth, chief of the office and at one time our military attaché in Great Britain, was an old personal friend with whom I could talk more openly. Another favorable circumstance was that he was also head of the censorship and so was one person whose letters nobody would dare open. We agreed that I would send my reports under double cover to him, and he would deliver the inner envelope to Count Hunyady. The vocabulary at the end of a well-known English grammar was selected as a code. This meant that I had not even to carry the code in my trunk, for the grammar could be purchased from any Swiss bookseller.[i]
His Majesty did not want Count Ottokar Czernin, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, to know anything about this undertaking, at least at the beginning. He felt, and rightly, that Czernin, an arrogant and conceited man, had obstructed his previous effort made through Prince Sixtus. But though it was unwise to let Czernin know about my expedition to Switzerland, I felt there were certain advantages in warning our Minister in Berne, Musulin, about it. Furthermore, I knew Musulin well enough to be sure that when he promised me that not a soul would hear anything from him, he would keep his word.
I crossed the border on August 2, 1917. I had once studied in Zurich so I was aware that the newspapers there were accustomed to record the names of visitors to the Swiss summer resorts. Immediately I made a fortunate discovery. The wife of a prominent French diplomat was staying at Montfleuri, above Montreux. The two sons of these people had been intimate friends of mine and they had often received me in their Paris home. It seemed wise, therefore, to leave my luggage at the station and go to Montreux immediately. By walking straight to Montfleuri I could lessen the risk of being watched. The lady started back when she saw me: the poor mother's two sons had already fallen. But my first words: "The Emperor --" sufficed to make this very clever woman listen to me. I asked to see her husband. "That will not be possible," she said. "He is in Salonika. But I will write immediately to Minister Léon Bourgeois and will myself take the letter to Berne for our Embassy's diplomatic bag. Bourgeois was my guardian. I shall suggest that he meet you in Geneva." Alea jacta erat!
But time pressed. Some weeks later, as I was crossing the lobby of the Palace Hotel in Berne, I noticed another French personage whom I had known since 1908. I disliked the man, but he was an influential Deputy and a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of Parliament; it would have been a mistake to neglect this opportunity. A meeting was arranged between us by a Swiss friend, Dr. Mende, son-in-law of the American Ambassador, General Horace Porter. Dr. Mende helped me wholeheartedly after I had given him my word of honor that I had not come to Switzerland as a spy. The Deputy was just leaving for Paris. He promised me to report immediately to Premier Ribot as well as to Bourgeois. It was particularly important that he see Bourgeois, a former Premier and the most influential member of the Cabinet, to give him verbal information in support of the letter which he had received from his ward. I know with absolute certainty that the Deputy did not keep his promise. He saw only Ribot, and the Premier refused to discuss any suggestion which might have come from the ruler of Austria-Hungary. The fact that a few months before the Allies had refused to accept the proposals of Prince Sixtus may have influenced him. Old people are often stubborn, and Ribot was over 75. The French, moreover, feared dissension with their Italian allies, who had not yet experienced their tremendous defeat at Caporetto. Both the Ministers trembled at the thought of being compromised. The French diplomat's wife informed me that Léon Bourgeois would not come to Geneva. My attempt had failed. I reported this to the Emperor from Switzerland. I added that perhaps His Majesty would now judge it advisable to make an attempt with the British. I took the liberty of humbly suggesting that, in this case, Baron Rudolph Slatin be sent to them. Count Hunyady answered: "Your suggestion has been accepted. He will join you."
Slatin, better known as General Slatin Pasha, had left Austria for the Sudan in his youth, and there, after thrilling adventures, he took service with the British. The outbreak of the war found him a Sirdar (General) and Inspector of the British troops. But he elected to resign and return to his homeland where, at the age of 60, he asked to be given fighting service in the infantry. Emperor Francis Joseph made him a Baron and put him at the head of the Austrian Red Cross in Vienna. Once when I was visiting him I saw a letter from his successor in Africa, General Sir Reginald Wingate, who addressed him as "Dear old chap," although their countries were at war. The British appreciate fairness and courage. Slatin would be persona grata.
Some time after my arrival in Switzerland I had heard a secret which was not so well kept as mine -- namely, that one of our diplomats, Count Revertera, was there for the purpose of getting in contact with the French military. I had immediately questioned Hunyady about Revertera. He had answered: "This belongs to the past. You are alone." But now Slatin was coming.
I learned in a peculiar way that Slatin would soon arrive. The Swiss papers reported that the Emperor Charles had had a motor accident while at the Italian front; he and his companion, Baron Slatin, had nearly been drowned in a flooded river. Slatin had no job at the front. It was therefore clear that the Emperor had summoned him from Vienna to give him instructions for his mission. Shortly thereafter we met in the train which brought him to Switzerland and after we had had a talk we separated.
In Berne everyone supposed that Slatin, head of the Austrian Red Cross, had come in connection with some Red Cross problems. This made it possible for him to have direct contact with the British representatives, who, of course, welcomed the former British General and Knight of the Bath cordially. But Slatin had no luck either. It was too late. Austria-Hungary's destruction had already been pledged.
Baron Slatin and I left Switzerland on December 19 and returned together to Vienna. We were both terribly saddened. I could not report to the Emperor at once because he was inspecting the eastern front; my arrival there might have given rise to comment. I had my audience with him on January 2 at Laxenburg. The aide-de-camp on duty, Lieutenant-Colonel Brougier, an acquaintance of mine, said to me when he opened the door of the audience room, "Please! Above all, do not excite him against the Germans." I was amazed. But the Emperor was already standing in the background; it was impossible for me to tell Brougier what I thought. Obviously the Germans had done much, since my departure, to influence the young monarch. This was proved when he asked me, among other things, "What do you think? When will the French Army become Bolshevized?" They nevertheless did not succeed in really winning him over. I found him at least as strongly imbued with the wish to have peace restored as when I left him -- and this in spite of the great victories gained over the Italians in the meantime. This shows that he was not only well intentioned and humane but that he was courageous also. He wanted the best, and tried honestly to obtain it.
Having failed in my mission, my only desire was to leave Vienna and, therewith, all politics. Not long after my return I obtained the command of an infantry battalion in the distant Ukraine. The men that I found there were still of excellent heart, and although half of them were Hungarians and half Rumanians, they were always in perfect accord. The old Monarchy could at least claim that achievement.
[i] Colonel Horváth has since been good enough to write down his reminiscences of this part of the affair and the paper is in my possession. Count Hunyady has confirmed their accuracy.
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