No empire ever lasts forever, but you have to wonder sometimes how some empires last as long as they do. On the outbreak of the First World War the Habsburg Empire of Austria-Hungary had officially lasted for 47 years, but its roots had been laid centuries before. Previously it had been known as the Austrian Empire, and, before that, the Holy Roman Empire (famously dubbed by Voltaire as being so named because it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire). Moreover, it was a political juggernaut in which the House of Habsburg had held the reins since the Middle Ages, notwithstanding the wars, scandals and inbreeding that had dogged the family for centuries. It would take the twin factors of international conflict, and impressive statecraft from a Hungarian-speaking aristocrat, to shake the Empire to its foundations – and thenceforth to bring it down.
One of the more pitiful aspects of the peacemaking process from 1919 onwards was the attempt by certain Hungarian representatives to paint themselves as victims of Habsburg oppression. It was a pretence that fooled very few among the top brass in the Allies. Yes, the Kingdom of Hungary had been taken over by the Habsburgs in the 16th Century, but the Kingdom’s custodians had done comparatively quite well out of the Habsburg system – at least, when compared with the Empire’s other, Slavic subject peoples. The effects of a failed revolution in 1848 and a threatened one nineteen years later combined to build enough political pressure to wrest from Emperor Franz Josef and his ministers the Compromise (in German, Ausgleich; or, in Hungarian, Kiegyezés) of 1867. Under this arrangement, the Kingdom of Hungary would have all the benefits of nation-statehood just short of independence: it’s own government, ministers, central bank, and so on – only foreign and defence affairs would be controlled in Vienna rather than Budapest. Not for nothing would the new state be called Austria-Hungary rather than the Austrian Empire (as had hitherto been the case): even the Empire’s flag reflected the new arrangement, being as it was two national standards sewn into one. It was, if you like, the ultimate form of devolution: one that so impressed some Irish nationalists that one of them, the founder of Sinn Fein, Arthur Griffith, considered the Compromise a useful model for Ireland’s future self-government. One Hungarian minister who was able to make maximum use of this arrangement was the Kingdom’s prime minister Count István Tisza.
Appointed Hungary’s head of government in 1913, Tisza, like most of his cabinet, fully supported the war against Serbia when it was declared in July 1914. He shared the Empire’s German-speakers’ (and most of its Croatian- and Slovene-speakers’) contempt for the Serbs, as well as a belief that their existence threatened the Empire’s survival. What his Emperor probably didn’t bank on happening was that the German-speaking part of his realm (which included his people) would be sidelined in the coming war, while the Hungarian part of it would effectively be running the show. It became blindingly obvious within the first few weeks that Germany would be calling the shots in the Emperor’s alliance with the Kaiser: after all, not only had the Habsburg armies been defeated by the Russians at Lemberg in September 1914, but had also been repulsed by the Serbs – a nominally much weaker power. From September 1914 onwards Austria-Hungary would become a German colony in all but name, as the Germans would (with some grumbling) have to rescue their much weaker ally from military pickle after military pickle. One German officer scornfully described the alliance between his country and Austria-Hungary as ‘like being shackled to a corpse.’ It was a sentiment that would be shared by German officers about Italy in the next war. The historian A J P Taylor, in his book The Habsburg Monarchy, went so far as to call the Budapest government’s war strategy ‘the greatest tour de force in Hungary’s history‘:
Once the partners of Bismarck and Little Germany, the Magyars [Hungarians] became, with equal assurance, allies of Greater Germany and the German army. They supposed that they could maintain their independence, though all others lost theirs. Tisza became virtual ruler of Austria-Hungary with German support: arrogant and independent, he could yet be relied on not to go with the Slavs. Early in 1915 Berchtold was dismissed on Tisza’s orders. Burián, his successor, was the first Magyar to become Foreign Minister since Andrássy; and he established a private telephone connexion with Tisza, so as to receive instructions from his real master. The difference between the shadowy position of the fading dynasty and the strength of the unshaken Magyars was shown in 1916, when the Germans attempted to repeat with Rumania the bargaining which had failed with Italy the year before. For Rumania could be bought only be cession of part of Transylvania, an integral part of the lands of St Stephen; and Tisza arrested the negotiations at the outset. The Magyars had been the principal makers of Dualism; now, recognizing the decay of the dynasty, they prepared for an independent Hungary. Despite the theoretical continuation of the Customs Union, the Hungarian government controlled the export of wheat, and doled it out to Austria, and even to Germany, only in return for political concessions. The self-confidence of the Magyars was unbounded. A minority within Hungary, they had dominated the Habsburg Monarchy; now, a people of ten millions, they claimed, and secured, equality with Germany, a Power seventy millions strong.
In other words, even if the Central Powers had won the First World War, it would not necessarily have saved the Habsburg empire per se: most politically-minded Hungarians could already see where the wind was blowing, while more than a few German-speaking subjects of the Emperor were starting to think about political union (Anschluss) with the German Empire (for example, a certain corporal who served in the Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment).
Just because Count Tisza, as head of government in Budapest, wanted what he considered to be the best for the Kingdom of Hungary in the War, however, that didn’t mean that he was a reformist. He consistently opposed political and constitutional reform: only about 10% of the population of Hungary had the right to vote before 1918, and Tisza wanted it to stay that way – and herein lay the seeds of his eventual exit from office.
In November 1916 the Emperor Franz Josef died, after a reign lasting 68 years, and was succeeded by his great-nephew, Karl. The new head of state had a better grasp of Austria-Hungary’s viability prospects than his predecessor, and spent most of his short reign trying to get out of the War that was only ruining the Empire. Hundreds of thousands had been killed serving the Habsburg army on the Eastern Front and in the Balkans, and several hundred thousand more were starving to death in Vienna and Budapest, owing to the Royal Navy’s blockade of the North Sea. So long as his realm remained an effective German colony, however, Karl’s secret peace feelers were always going to come to nothing, and his only hope for making a difference now lay in effecting political reform, by increasing the franchise. His Hungarian prime minister refused to countenance anything in this direction; Karl wouldn’t be moved, and so, on 23 May 1917, Tisza quit his job – and the spectacle of such a public falling-out between a German-speaking monarch and a Hungarian-speaking head of government would not easily be forgotten. All the while, of course, the Empire, continued to rot as its armies were taken over by German officers, its subjects slowly starved, and nationalist movements started to think about life outside it once the War was over…