Germany and Habsburg Problem

By Edward Beneš

[The Bohemian Review, September 1917]

The political situation in Austria-Hungary is singularly critical. The monarchy is economically on the edge of the abyss; the working classes are reduced tor absolute want; the lower middle class (officials, employees, etc., particularly) are starving; whilst the upper middle class, manufacturers and tradespeople, are ruined. From the intellectual point of view there is complete demoralization: the nation is exhausted, its resistance broken; it is as incapable of moral elevation as of rebellion. Indifference and renunciation characterize it. Only the intellectual class formerly occupied with politics, continues active—in so far as it is not threatened by imprisonment.

In this setting the Reichsrat met and presented a singular spectacle to the world. All that those acquainted with Austria had sedulously predicted for three years came to pass on the first day. The Czechs announced their programme for an independent Czecho-Slovak State, the Poles intimated their decision to separate from Austria in order to create a unified and free Poland, and the Jugoslavs expressed the desire to be united in a Jugoslav State. The solution of the Austro-Hungarian problem thus stated, signified that the Poles would definitely disappear from Austria, that the Czechs would become independent, and would take with them almost a third of Hungary—the richest and the most important part—that the Jugoslavs would unite with their Balkan compatriots and the Italians with their co-nationals in Italy. The Germans in German Austria and the Magyars in Hungary alone would remain. This programme, then, signifies the definitive end of their domination. At a single stroke they would lose everything. What is especially important and absolutely decisive for the fate of the Monarchy is that Austro-Hungarian governments during the war have succeeded in compelling absolute silence for three years by force. Clam-Martinic committed the supreme blunder of convoking Parliament and unchaining the tempest of all the elements hostile to the Monarchy, a tempest which it appears impossible to still. And the most serious factor of all is the wide popular support which the movement receives. In Galicia enthusiastic demonstrations have forced the Polish deputies to abjure their traditional Austrophil policy. In the Czech countries a genuine revolutionary movement, supported by all the political, economic, literary, and artistic organizations, by town and village, by the workmen and intellectuals, in a word, by the whole nation, threatens the deputies with pitiless severity if they do not state the full popular demand. Similar movements are taking place among the Ruthenes, Jugoslavs, Italians, and Rumanians.

The Empire is disintegrating: The internal situation is such that it is impossible for the Czechs, Poles, and Jugoslavs to withdraw their declarations in the Reichsrat which voice these popular movements. The fate of Austria is being decided. The Germans and Magyars cannot control this formidable movement. For, on the one hand, they do not understand the political psychology of their opponents, and did not believe that the process of internal dislocation was so far advanced. On the other hand, blinded by their insensate projects of domination, incapable of understanding that everything is irremediably lost, they continue as of old: centralist and Germano-Magyar "Austria" must be preserved solely in order that some profit may be drawn from its preservation. Thus they refuse to yield an inch. For the Germans, the loss of their predominance in Austria would mean the complete loss of their political position. And then there would be no object in their remaining in Austria, they would he happier in Germany. And for the Magyars to lose their political privileges in Slovakia, Croatia, and Transylvania would mean the end of Magyarized Hungary and the loss of everything for them. What interest would they have in fighting to preserve Austria for the Emperor? That is the whole problem. The fate of Austria-Hungary would be a matter of indifference to the Magyars from the moment that the monarchy became federalized. For they could lose neither more nor less whether it were federalized, or dismembered altogether. In a certain sense they would be freer if it disappeared completely than if they remained in some kind of confederation reduced to their own population of eight millions, and exceeded in numbers by the others. Consequently, they will fight with the utmost energy against real and effective federation.

The Austrian Germans, on their part, are even more incensed against political concessions, in the federalist sense, to the Slavs than the Germans of the Empire. They understand very well that the real federation of Austria would, as matters stand, give great predominance to the Slav element in opposition to the German, which is scattered in small fractions everywhere over the Slav territories, and which would necessarily be sacrificed to the majority principle. That is why the Austria Germans have always been much more uncompromising towards the other nations in Austria-Hungary than the Germans of the Empire, themselves, and also why they are now defending themselves against real federation. and ready rather to separate from the Monarchy altogether. Thus it has been easy for the Germans and Magyars to make the ruling circles in Vienna understand that the plans of the Slavs—whether they aim at federation or at independence—mean the end of the Monarchy. All the more, everyone knows that Galicia is from this day finally lost, even if the Emperor were to try a Slav federalist policy. It is clear at present that the Poles will not form part of a federal Austria, and the same thing is true of the Jugoslavs, who lean towards the Balkans, and finally of the Ruthenes, who after the secession of the Poles could not remain in Austria. The Czecho-Slovaks alone would remain in it. And what would their position be? Ten-millions of Czechoslovaks beside twenty million Austro-Magyars; that is to say, a position infinitely more dangerous than before the war. In these circumstances they would not wish to remain in Austria-Hungary for anything in the world.

Again, to satisfy the Slavs and to initiate any process of constitutional reform inevitably opens the road to the dissolution of the Monarchy. The Germans, the Magyars, and the ruling classes thoroughly understand the position. They know that the Slavs cannot and will not yield. They know also that to attempt to establish a real federation would inevitably lead the uncontrolled force of the Slavs to strip their enemies first of all their privileges and then ultimately to quit the Monarchy. It is for that reason that they will try their utmost to hinder this federation, for it is less difficult to dismember the Empire than to federalize it in the Slav sense: for so long as it is a question of federalizing it, it is they who will have a voice in the matter, and having the power in their hands they will use it to prevent these changes.

The two dominant nations in Austria-Hungary at present are doing all they can .to persuade the ruling classes that the sole possibility of saving Austria is to govern it with a strong hand, to make a display of concessions, but to preserve Austria as it is. If not, the Emperor is menaced by rebellion or by the indifference of these two loyalist nations, who would in such circumstances lose all interest in defending the Monarchy.

The dynasty is thus in a terrible dilemma — (1) Either the status quo with small modifications, in order to throw dust in the eyes of Europe; (2) Or the attempt to establish a true Slav federation, which will inevitably lead to the final dissolution of the Monarchy; for true federation would on the one hand let loose the revolt of the Germans and Magyars, and, on the other hand, it would fatally strengthen the separatist tendencies amongst the Slavs and would drive them finally to a complete and inevitable separation from the Monarchy. The Austro-Hungarian, problem would thus appear to be insoluble.

The role of Germany in this impasse is worth watching. German tactics are curious and very skillful. Germany sees that two eventualities must be excluded: (1) In the first place, the present state of affairs, in which the oppressed nationalities make too much noise, which the Entente exploits against the- Central Empires, and in which the Polish question no longer admits of adjournment, has become intolerable, and Germany, therefore, desires a modification of the present state with a view of bringing nearer a speedy and advantageous peace; (2) The Monarchy must not be dismembered, for the preservation of Austria is a vital German interest. The Prussian plan is to originate a so-called "federation" in Austria, with fairly wide provincial autonomy, certain concessions to the nationalities, and, if necessary, separation of the Poles and Italians from the Monarchy. But the preservation of the Monarchy is, above all else, necessary to Germany! And Germany begs the Austrian Germans to be reasonable and conciliatory, not to carry their uncompromising attitude far enough to threaten the existence of the State. She seeks to impress upon the Austrian Germans that, in the interest of Deutschtum, it is their duty to make sacrifices in favor of the Austrian Slavs, that, to a certain extent, they must sacrifice themselves in the true sense of the word, and that they will render to Germany an infinitely greater service if they preserve their State, in which they will share their power with the other nations, than if they compromise everything by hurrying on the general ruin. So spoke Herr Georg Bernhard in the Vossische Zeitung; and the Frankfurter Zeitung and the Zeit of Vienna have summed up the situation in similar terms. The Magyars especially thoroughly understand the position when they earnestly advised the Austrian Germans to make concessions in Austria, so that they should not be compelled to make them themselves in Hungary, and thus bring about the same state of impending dissolution as obtains now in Austria, And thus also those who conceived the idea of the amnesty to the Slav political prisoners were acting under the prompting of Berlin, with the deliberate intention of saving Austria by throwing dust in the eyes of the Entente. In short, Germany's plan is this: Untenable as are conditions in Austria today, dismemberment would be a real disaster for Germanism in general; and, therefore, a bold scheme of federation must be advertised in order to dupe the Entente, and to preserve Austria until Germany herself is once more able to recover the lost ground.

The whole of Austro-Hungarian and German policy is now briefly: How to stop this irresistible movement of the nations leading irrevocably to the dissolution of the Monarchy; how to dupe these nations and the Entente at the same time by a scheme of reform acceptable to the Allies; how to save this state which threatens to crumble away the moment a single part of its framework is really touched?

Such is the problem at present; Such is the meaning of the Austro-German pourparlers, of the probable early offer of "peace without annexations and indemnities," of the amnesty accorded to the Slavs, of the plan to establish a commission at Vienna for the revision of the Constitution, of the departure of Clam-Martinic and Tisza, and of the project for a coalition cabinet in Austria. It is no new political orientation nor is it new tactics. It has been long in preparation and is now being tried. Its success depends upon our ability to distinguish the true from the false.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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