Among the multitude of new works on the First World War, Lothar Höbelt’s book offers not great surprises but rather some new insights. The subtitle, “Austrian Politics in the First World War”, defines the field of investigation, while the main title, “To Stand or Fall”, reflects Höbelt’s primary intent: to focus on the courses of action available to the Imperial government during various phases of the war. In the preface, he stresses that many previous interpretations have been too influenced by the war’s final result (the monarchy’s collapse) and therefore neglected the powerful dynamics of its course. ‘The Great War (1914–1918) was fraught with surprising twists and turns, particularly where Austria–Hungary was concerned, which repeatedly contradicted all expert predictions’ (p. 7). The shifting fortunes of war form only the background of Höbelt’s account. The same may be said of social and economic developments, such as the disastrous food shortages and powerful strike movement, which appear only on the margins (in my view, to the detriment of achieving a complete picture of wartime political conditions.) Höbelt’s primary focus concerns plans for the Austro-Hungarian monarchy’s future development, particularly regarding conflicts between the various nationalities and parliamentarianism. He details the key political personalities, exploring their backgrounds, political positions, room for manoeuvre, networks, intrigues, successes and failures within the complicated political climate (Machtgefüge) created by the war. Höbelt demonstrates a great mastery of detail, which is in no way surprising given his previous studies and political interests, which lay strongly in the German nationalist camp. Given the multitude of historical actors, it was undoubtedly difficult for the author to maintain a balanced overall analysis while granting each their appropriate significance. Could the monarchy have been saved? Höbelt stresses that its dissolution was perhaps the project of individual politicians but not a significant objective in Paris, London and Washington. In the decisive days of the military collapse in 1918, the successor states simply made optimal use of their chances and largely dictated the demarcation of borders to the victorious powers in Paris. Neither a final decision nor a comprehensive statement of Allied war aims in regards to Austria–Hungary was ever issued. Individual acknowledgements certainly occurred, but no master plan was laid out. There may be something to be said for this interpretation in regard to the future of east-central and south-eastern Europe. In fact, only Italy’s complete military collapse convinced the Allies to accept its territorial claims. The Allies’ main contribution, according to Höbelt, lay above all in their military successes after September 1918. ‘With these victories, the power constellation which had previously held the monarchy together collapsed. The way was now clear for the independence movements of the monarchy’s nationalities.’ Many Austrian-Hungarian politicians saw the war as a means to solve the monarchy’s major long-standing problems: nationality conflicts, such as that between Czechs and Germans in Bohemia, the role of parliament within the Empire’s governance, constitutional reform and the ‘Central Europe’ project advocating close alignment with the German Empire. These themes recurred frequently in discussions and conflicts during the war. No less worthy of attention were other underlying problems; for example, the more clandestinely than openly articulated aspirations of the south Slavic nations and their collision with Austrian and Hungarian interests. Höbelt also takes up this theme (for example, the missed opportunity to create a Greater Croatia) but struggles to hold his larger argument together amidst this turmoil of governments, parties and movements. He repeatedly discusses the Hungarian agenda, broaches the issue of the ongoing negotiations concerning the Ausgleich of 1867 (Ausgleichsverhandlung) and critiques the “bad guy” image that many historians attribute to Hungary. However, his depictions of the complex Austro-Hungarian relations and internal Hungarian politics are on the whole too briefly addressed. In long phases of the war, Austria–Hungary was governed by emergency decree; in 1917, in the context of the Russian Revolution and America’s entry into the conflict, the authoritarian government in Vienna increasingly descended into an existential crisis. The new emperor reconvened parliament. Even prior to this, the Austrian elite wrestled with the problem of how the government could form majorities in parliament as well as how to limit the obstruction of parliamentary parties to bearable levels that could prevent a majority from forming against the German parties. Appeals to national interest generated no stable coalition but rather produced political liabilities and stymied every reform. Projections and plans for reform existed aplenty. During the war, they changed in relation to the shifting military and political circumstances. The numerous governmental dissolutions in the second half of the war resulted from the ever-changing geo-political parameters as well as from confusion and lack of leadership. Hardly was a government formed before it was dissolved. Höbelt outlines the individual phases of this political turmoil and describes the projects that shaped Austrian politics in these periods. Repeatedly, he invokes the image of ‘two irons in the fire’. Definitive solutions were hardly to be found in these months. Agreements were counter-productive as they then fell victim to shifting political constellations. One such example was the Polish question, which Höbelt examines at considerable length. In retrospect, it is astounding how often and how quickly recently-agreed future plans changed, blocked by an abundance of contradictory interests. The government in Vienna needed the Poles in parliament in order to form a majority, while at the same time seeking to exclude the Polish provinces (all of Galicia) from the Cisleithian Verband in order to allow the German parties to form a majority. The conquest of the sections of Poland belonging to the Russian Empire in 1914 complicated matters even further because Austrian and German interests in the area collided. The Poles wanted independence, while the Central Powers wanted, above all, to form any Polish units that could be sent to the front. Austria pursued an Austro-Polish solution (personal union with the Habsburg monarchy) while the Ukrainians and Germans in Galicia sought to thwart this plan as neither wished to live in a Polish state. Also striking is Höbelt’s evaluation of the ‘Sixtus-Affäre’, which differs greatly from prevailing interpretations. He sees it as completely overblown to view the affair as the turning-point in Austrian history during the final months of the Habsburg monarchy, and argues that the consequences (Kaiser Karl’s submission to the German Kaiser and the politics of the German Empire, as well as the Western powers’ commitment to Austria–Hungary’s dissolution) are depicted far too harshly. He maintains that, even prior to this incident, the Allies’ openness to the possibility of a separate peace with the Habsburg monarchy was very limited. In addition to the Sixtus-Affäre, Höbelt enjoys contradicting many other established interpretations and depictions. Sometimes this is done openly; at other times through non-attention; occasionally through somewhat dismissive language. The dynamics of the Christian Social and Social Democratic movements, previously considered to be the decisive powers at the founding of the Austrian republic, are essentially ignored. The odd, misplaced use of the expression ‘Sozis’ (p. 253) is revealing in this context. The Jännerstreiks (January strikes) of 1918, which brought Austria to the edge of revolution, are hardly mentioned. In the epilogue, Höbelt briefly tips his hat to Otto Bauer’s great study Die österreichische Revolution (1923), but that is the only time he mentions Bauer’s work. One questions whether that is acceptable. © Oxford University Press 2017. All rights reserved.
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Dec 8, 2017
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