Austria Faces the Future

By T. Lothrop Stoddard

[The American Review of Reviews, January 1917]

If Germany has risked her status as a world power on the outcome of the present war, her chief partner has even more at stake. For Austria-Hungary the issue is literally one of life and death. Were the Entente Allies able freely to work their will in the re-settlement of Europe, the Dual Monarchy would disappear from the roster of the world's nations. In that case Italy and a Greater Serbia would between them shear away all the southwestern provinces, Rumania would tear off Transylvania and bite deep into the Hungarian plain, while giant Russia would devour Galicia and weld the Slav populations of Bohemia, Moravia, and northern Hungary into a Czech-Slovak state dependent upon the Russian Empire.

In that case there would remain only the German-speaking provinces of the upper Danube to Vienna, and the restricted Magyar block in the central Danubian plain of Hungary. Neither of these latter groups could long maintain themselves as independent entities. The Austrian Germans would swiftly, gravitate to the main body of their race in the Teutonic homeland. As to the Magyars, lost in the heart of the vast Hungarian plain, cut off from the sea, and shielded by no natural barriers from a constricting ring of implacable race-enemies, they would ultimately either disappear altogether or sink into lasting insignificance as the humble satellite of some powerful neighbor.

Such would be Austria-Hungary's fate in case of a complete Allied victory. But it is becoming daily more apparent that no such sweeping Allied victory is going to take place. The marvelous reserve energy and ferocious driving-power just displayed by the Central Empires in their recent smashing of Rumania make it highly improbable that the mid-European block can be shattered. The war may go on for a long time yet, but the eventual outcome looks more and more like some sort of a draw—stalemate, say, with Central Europe holding most of the pawns.

But this means that Austria will live; that she has a future. May we not see in the recent change of monarchs an omen of the morrow? The closing months of the late Emperor Francis Joseph's life were gloomy in the extreme. Everywhere Austria's enemies stood flushed and eager, and when in late August Rumania burst across the Transylvania mountains it seemed for a moment like the beginning of the end.

Yet Francis Joseph's last hours were cheered by glad tidings from the Ruman border, and his youthful successor ascends the throne amid the tumult of the joy bells ringing out the capture of Bucharest. Never since the war began have Austria's prospects looked so fair. Her most implacable enemy, Serbia, the "Balkan Piedmont," seeking to wrest away the whole southwest for a "Yugoslav" Empire, lies prostrate in the dust. Rumania, the other Balkan aspirant for Hapsburg spoils, is hastening swiftly down the road to ruin. Italy, the would-be ravisher of Austria's seaboard, is stuck fast amid the grey limestone tangle of the Adriatic coast plateaux and makes no real progress after twenty months of desperate war. As to Russia, the Bear still prowls if vainly before the Carpathian mountain-wall, while further to the north Austrian soldiers keep their cantonments far out in the Russian plains. Resolutely holding off Slav and Italian foes to east and west, Austria and her allies have forged a grip on the Balkans and Near East apparently not to be broken.


What of the new monarch, Charles Francis Joseph, whom fate has appointed to guide the Empire's brightening destinies? A young man of thirty, comparatively little is known about his deeper tendencies and capacities, yet that little is all in his favor. The son of Archduke Otto and Princess Maria of Saxony, Charles Francis' upbringing was a wise and well-directed one. His Saxon mother, a sensible woman, determined that her son should not be reared in the hot-house isolation which has proved so detrimental to many Hapsburg princes. Accordingly, the young Charles Francis was sent to one of the large Viennese boys' schools, where he rubbed elbows with middle- and working-class lads and thus acquired an early sense of this world's realities not to be gained from the preceptions of courtly tutors, in the medieval atmosphere of some distant country chateau. His youth and early manhood were, likewise passed in surroundings calculated to confirm his practical sense and grasp of reality.

Entering the army, Charles Francis was carefully kept from the light distractions of Vienna, passing his time in distant garrison towns of the Empire. He was not spared or favored, and, since the Austrian officers' corps is permeated with traditions of hard work and plain living, he grew to maturity surrounded by serious, duty-loving men. During those years he clearly showed that personal charm and capacity for making friends which he has displayed ever since his first appearance as a fair-haired baby with his nurse-maid in the Prater, the great Viennese public park. In fact, his military career gained him the good-will not only of his army associates but also of the Polish and Ruthenian populations of Galicia, the province where he spent most of his time. His marriage with Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma (apparently a genuine love-match) was well received by public opinion, and the two sons who have already blessed this union have firmly consolidated the direct line of succession to the Hapsburg throne. Charles Francis' private life has been gratifyingly uneventful. No breath of scandal has touched him, and he has passed his most recent years at Vienna busy mastering the technique of statecraft and apparently contented in a well-ordered, harmonious family life.

Such, according to the best evidence, is Charles Francis Joseph, Austria's new Emperor. Not a genius; rather, a level-headed, likable young man, ready to work and willing to learn. Yet this is the very reason why his subjects should be best satisfied. Such a monarch is a vast improvement over the late Heir-Apparent, Francis Ferdinand. The murdered Archduke was certainly an unusually strong personality, endowed with marked talents and possessed of high-soaring ideas. But all these gifts were nullified by a mental twist amounting almost to insanity and by the handicap of a ravaging disease. Such a personality enthroned would have been a genuine peril for the Empire, which needs for its crying problems of reconstruction primarily tact, common-sense, and wise counsel. And these the young Emperor seems well fitted to give.


Austria's problems of reconstruction are, of course, both many and grave. First and foremost stands the multiple question of nationalities. The most pressing phase of this vital issue is the much-discussed "Southern Slav Question"—the proximate cause of the present European War. Should the Central Empires retain their present Balkan supremacy, however, Austria-Hungary would have a golden opportunity to solve the Southern Slav Question in accordance with the permanent safety and integrity of the Empire.

A Balkan triumph of the Central Powers means that Serbia will not be restored as an independent state; it probably means that the Serbian territories will be divided between Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria, Bulgaria taking the mixed Serbo-Bulgar populations of Macedonia and southern Serbia, Austria-Hungary, taking the pure Serb populations of the north. In that case, with forbearance and constructive statesmanship, the still plastic Serb stock would in all probability ultimately fuse with the closely kindred Bulgarian and Croatian cultures. Certainly, as regards the Austrian phase of the problem, the Croat-Slovene portion of the South Slav folk would have a decisive numerical and cultural preponderance over the Serb element. Of the 7,000,000, South Slav inhabitants of Austria-Hungary not more than 2,000,000 can be classed as "Serbs," the Croat-Slovene majority being Roman Catholic in religion and Western in culture, in opposition to the Serbs, with their Greek Orthodox faith and their Byzantine cultural past.

The large Mohammedan population of Bosnia-Herzegovina (South Slav in blood) strongly prefers Austrian to Serbian rule. Under these circumstances, the incorporation of war-ravaged, depopulated north Serbia into the Hapsburg dominions could not well redress the balance. Of course, Austrian statesmanship will have to allow these peoples full cultural rights and will be obliged to evolve a generous scheme of political devolution. The tyrannical Magyar grip over Croatia-Slavonia, especially, will have to be broken. Otherwise, the very union of the South Slavs under the Hapsburg sceptre will fuse them into an irreconcilable entity more formidable than before. But the horrors of the present war have indubitably taught Austrian statesmen many things, and we have no reason to believe that the Empire will deliberately fly in the face of Providence when vouchsafed a genuine opportunity of solving the greatest peril to its future.

Of course all this is cruel tragedy for the Serbs—but it is the way of the world. For many years Serbia frankly aspired to be the "Balkan Piedmont" and worked to disrupt Austria-Hungary in order to build from its ruins a great Yugoslav Empire. For both states the issue was thenceforth one of life or death, and in such implacable duels the loser must pay the ultimate forfeit.


The South Slav Question is intimately connected with the Italian problem, but here again a solution not incompatible with Austria-Hungary's future seems clearly possible. The wisest way of settling the Austro-Italian feud would apparently be Austria's cession of the Trentino district of South Tyrol to Italy in return for a thoroughgoing Italian renunciation of all claims to Austria's Adriatic coast and to Albania.

The Rumanian problem is less easy. A continuance of the Austro-German Balkan hegemony of course means that Rumania will in future be within the Central European orbit. Nevertheless, Rumania's incorporation with Austria-Hungary is practicably unthinkable; the country is too large, compact and culturally distinct. Neither can the Rumanian inhabitants of Transylvania and the Hungarian plain be united even to a friendly Rumania, since these folk are inextricably mixed up with Magyar, Slav, and German populations. Rumania has just gambled for this solution at Austrian expense, and she has apparently lost. She will have to reconcile herself to this fact. But Austrian statesmen must realize that they can never hope for a dependable ally in Rumania unless Austria not only shows generosity to her beaten, foe but also grants cultural liberty to the Rumanian-speaking population destined to remain under Hapsburg sway.

Here again the Magyars will have to give up their tyrannous practices. Of course much heart-burning will ensue. Yet the Magyars have of late been sitting in experience's dear school. For the past two and one-half years they have been shedding their very heart's blood in atonement for the past, and they know how narrowly they have escaped race-death at the hands of their infuriated Slav and Ruman enemies. Peace should accordingly find the Magyars in a reasonable mood. If by some mischance this be not the case, neither Austria nor Germany is going to allow Magyar chauvinism to foment Slav and Ruman irredentist ulcers in the Central European body.


The settlement of the Polish and Ruthenian questions depends entirely upon the outcome of the struggle with Russia, and this struggle is as yet so far from conclusion that but little can be predicted. If Russia should be decisively beaten the consequence would be the erection of Polish and "Ukrainian" buffer States to which the Polish and Ruthene portions of Galicia and Bukowina would be respectively assigned. On the other hand, a compromise peace with Russia might leave Austria-Hungary's northeastern frontier much as it is now, or might even result in certain rectifications in Russia's favor.

The possibility of a new "Ukrainia" involves much more momentous consequences than are generally supposed. The 4,000,000 Ruthenes of Eastern Galicia and the Bukowina are merely the western outpost of a much larger racial group lying--mainly within the Russian Empire, where they are known as "Little Russians." These "Little Russians" number nearly 25,000,000 and occupy a great tract of southern Russia. Their historical center is the city of Kiev, and despite centuries of Muscovite persecution they have succeeded in retaining their racial identity, fortified as they have been by a separate language and proud memories of a rich cultural past.


Perhaps the most serious of Austria's nationality problems is that known as the "Northern Slav Question"—the problem of those kindred Slav peoples, the Czechs and Slovaks, who stretch in a broad belt through Bohemia, Moravia and the Carpathian uplands of northern Hungary. The Slovaks are still in a backward and inarticulate condition, but the Bohemian Czechs are probably the most energetic and capable branch of the whole Slav race. They have high ambitions and have long aimed at nothing short of an autonomous Bohemia with complete Czech political and cultural ascendency. The war has unquestionably, aroused strong separatist hopes in Bohemia, and there has been much incipient disloyalty kept down, only by the sternest sort of martial law.

If the Central European block emerges unbroken from the present struggle, the Czechs will have to give up not only their separatist dreams, but also their more radical autonomist aspirations. There are several reasons which render an autonomous Czech State incompatible with the continued existence of an Austro-Hungarian or even a German Empire. In the first place, Bohemia is by no means exclusively Czech. There is a very large German minority (35 per cent) as tenacious of its race-life and culture as the Czechs themselves. In the second place, Bohemia is almost surrounded by Germanic territory. The Germans, whether of Austria or the German Empire, would never tolerate the destruction of the Teutonic minority in Bohemia and the erection in the midst of the Teutonic world of a solid Slav fortress almost severing the Germans of the Danube valley from the main body of the race. On the other hand, the Germans will be fatally shortsighted if they permit the intoxication of victory and rancor at Czech disloyalty to lead them into a refusal of generous guarantees to the Czechs for as wide a cultural and political liberty as is consistent with the future of the Austrian Empire and continued Central European solidarity.


Perhaps the most hopeful omen for the future of all these nationalist problems is to be found in the economic development of Austria-Hungary. Modern industrialism has already largely transformed the Austrian half of the Dual Monarchy, and the normal effect of industrialization is to soften racial asperities within State frontiers. The interlacing of economic interests and the throwing together of polyglot working populations in great industrial centers tend to replace the parochial isolation and traditional particularism of the old agricultural existence by a wider outlook on life and by the growth of a spirit of cooperation for the attainment of common ends.

Should the Central Powers retain their Balkan ascendency and their connection with the Near East, this industrializing process would be greatly accelerated. The existence of such vast fields for Austrian manufactures, capital, and enterprise would tend to relegate nationalist feuds to the background. We already have an object-lesson of what may be expected by what has already occurred in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The large Austro-Hungarian population which has poured into those backward provinces during the forty years of Austrian rule, though drawn from every corner of the Empire, has left its nationalist feuds behind and has cooperated heartily in the consciousness of a common imperial citizenship.


For that matter, there are many old unifying factors in Austria-Hungary which have been too often overlooked in the dust and tumult of nationalist quarrels. Austria-Hungary is no mere crazy-quilt of ethnic shreds and patches; her populations are not so many Germans, Slavs, Magyars and Italians, dropped down in sudden juxtaposition upon the map. The racial tendencies of all these nationalities have been profoundly modified by subtle bonds of long-standing political and economic union none the less powerful for being intangible.

High above all stands the House of Hapsburg with its effulgent aura of the "Holy Roman Empire" a mystic emanation which kindles in nearly every Austrian heart the fire of dynastic loyalty. Below, but in close connection with, this supreme symbol of Austrian imperial unity, stand those powerful forces, the nobility, the army, the bureaucracy and the Church—all supra-nationalist in that they contain members of every Austro-Hungarian race, all essentially "imperialist." Lastly, there exist whole populations of fanatical loyalists like the Tyrolese. All this engenders a powerful, even if unobtrusive, unitary spirit—that Austrian "atmosphere," so intangible yet so patent to every traveller as soon as he crosses the Austrian frontier. You cannot, precisely lay your finger on it, but you know that it is there.

The Hapsburg Empire is thus not the creaking mechanism which many persons suppose. It is a true political organism with a living soul. Of course, the Allies' sword may yet pierce its heart, but its death seems more unlikely with every passing day. Judged by all present omens, Austria-Hungary has a future consonant with its imperial past.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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