The assassination of the Habsburg heir in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 set in motion events that led to a global war. Arguably it was eighty-three-year-old Francis Joseph I, Emperor of Austria (1830-1916), pressured by military advisers, government ministers, and his German ally, who unleashed the war. Austria-Hungary’s wartime experiences, however, rarely warrant mention in general histories of the First World War, even though the country’s wartime economic organization, food rationing, pioneering refugee provision, and military occupation in Serbia, Lublin, and Albania, were critical elements of the war in the east. Yet despite scholars’ more global focus in recent years, the Western Front remains hegemonic in shaping narratives of the war.[1]

The history of the war in the east fits badly with traditional understandings of war in the west, which ended decisively with an armistice on 11 November 1918 that determined clear winners and a clear loser. In the east, several regional wars pitted the newly formed militaries of the successor states against each other and against bands of irregular paramilitaries that wreaked havoc on each other and on civilians from the Baltics to the Balkans until well into the 1920s.[2] The war in the east also involved more movement than the war of attrition fought in the trenches of Belgium and northern France; the hostile powers occupied and re-occupied large swathes of territory in the east. There, regimes of occupation covered vast territories, involved far more people than did the German occupations in the west and sometimes served as sites of ambitious social experimentation. Finally, when historians do analyze the actions and experiences of the Central Powers, most concentrate overwhelmingly on Germany with Austria-Hungary barely mentioned.[3]

Part of this void around the Austro-Hungarian war effort can be explained by historians’ preoccupation with studying nationalist political conflict within Austro-Hungarian society. Traditional scholarship focused more on the empire’s collapse, and less on the experience of the war itself. Conventionally, historians linked the monarchy’s loss of the war and its end to its alleged inability to manage mutually hostile national populations. This view, also articulated by allied propagandists, presumed that the monarchy’s many nations sought to escape an oppressive regime to found or join nation states. According to this logic, war simply sped up an inevitable downfall that was foreseeable in 1914. Most historians today are less willing to attribute the monarchy’s collapse purely to issues of national conflict. They analyze Austria-Hungary’s end more in terms of specific social and political crises brought on by the experience of total war, an approach that works well when comparing the histories of revolution in Russia, mutinies and strikes in France and Germany, the Easter Rebellion in Britain, or the collapse of the Italian Front at Caporetto/Kobarid, for example. Each of these exposed the general fragility of wartime regimes, just as with the case of Austria-Hungary.

Austria-Hungary In 1914

In 1914 Austria-Hungary was Europe’s second largest state (after Russia) with its third largest population (after Russia and Germany).[4] It covered an area that today lies within the borders of Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania, Serbia, and Ukraine. Austria-Hungary held no extra-Europe colonies, except for a small neighborhood in the Chinese city of Tianjin acquired after the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901). It had annexed the formerly Ottoman territories of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908 and proclaimed a constitutional statute for their inhabitants in 1910.

As did most European states, the Habsburg Monarchy included among its citizens people who used different languages and practiced different religions. However, the sheer number of legally recognized languages used in the Habsburg Monarchy, the degree to which the two Habsburg states Austria and Hungary institutionalized their use, and the fact that the Austro-Hungarian state itself had no official language, set it apart from its European neighbors. German served as the language of military command for the whole empire and of the central (not provincial) bureaucracies in the Austrian half of the empire, while Magyar served as Hungary’s official language.

Since 1867 the Habsburg Monarchy had consisted of two independent states: Hungary, and a state to which I refer as “Austria.”[5] Each had its own constitution, its own administrative and judiciary structures, and its own citizenship and language laws. The two states were joined together by a common ruler (the emperor of Austria who was also king of Hungary), a common ministry for foreign affairs, a joint military, a common currency, and a common trade policy. Together they formed the largest free trade zone in Europe.

Historians’ inattention to Austria-Hungary’s war experience was not the result of the monarchy’s lack of technological know-how or its potential power in an industrialized war. In industrial and technological terms Austria-Hungary was the world’s fourth largest producer of machines, its third largest manufacturer and exporter of electrical industrial appliances, and its third largest producer of oil. It was also a global leader in higher education; its universities - in the Czech, German, Hungarian, and Polish languages - led in several of the natural and social sciences. The literacy rate in the Austrian half of the empire stood at 85 percent in 1910, a number comparable to that of France, although this number masked regional differences between Austria’s west and northwest (over 90 percent literacy) and the far east or south (closer to 55 percent). In Hungary and in Bosnia, the educational systems were not as well developed or funded as in Austria and resembled more those documented for Italy or Spain (around 50-55 percent). Additionally, in response to pressures from its growing socialist party, Austria had also developed a significant and politically influential labor movement by 1900. After the introduction of universal and equal manhood suffrage for the imperial parliament in 1907, the socialist parties formed that body’s largest political bloc. Additionally, Austria boasted state-sponsored social security and welfare provisions, from pension schemes to medical insurance like those found in Germany, provisions that placed it ahead of France or Great Britain. In Hungary, where industry was less developed, the smaller union movement exercised far less political influence, and welfare institutions were more limited in scope than in Austria, but still growing in importance.[6] After 1867, however, Hungary’s government made significant investment in the development of its infrastructure and industry. All of this suggests that in 1914 Austria-Hungary resembled its European neighbors to the west and south in more ways than it differed from them.

The Military

The liberal reform era that established Austria and Hungary as separate states in 1867 had also created a system of general conscription for military service that applied to all male citizens of Austria and Hungary. The law shortened the period of service to three years (later two), ending the practice that allowed some men to dodge military service by paying for a replacement. All eighteen-year-old men were equally liable in an annual lottery, although not all numbers were called up in any given year. Those who were not called had to join the military reserves or one of the territorial militias, the Landwehr in Austria, the Honvéd in Hungary, and the Hrvatsko domobranstvo in Croatia. Educated middle-class recruits who qualified for university admission could volunteer for a single year’s training as reserve officers. This ensured a much greater social and religious diversity among Austro-Hungarian reserve officers (and a much higher percentage of Jewish reserve officers) than was the case in the more socially exclusive German or Russian officer corps.[7]

As the experience of war would show, Austro-Hungarian units were no less effective than their British, French, German, Italian, or Russian counterparts. Nevertheless, given their focus on national conflict, some contemporaries and later historians speculated that multilingual practices in the military may have weakened morale or the ability of units to function cohesively in the First World War. According to the regulations, all recruits — including German speakers — had to learn eighty or so German-language commands and technical terms. If however, a minimum of 20 percent of a regiment’s recruits spoke any one of the monarchy’s recognized languages, then that language became an official regimental language. There is little evidence to suggest that this multilingualism had any impact on Austria-Hungary’s fighting capabilities. Wartime disasters, when they happened, almost always resulted from incompetent leadership rather than from the multilingualism of the recruits.[8]

The universal character of conscription transformed military service from a burden to be avoided at all costs to a rite of passage for many young men across the monarchy. Military service offered considerable benefits to working-class or peasant recruits, from regular medical care, food and housing, to technical training that provided opportunities for social mobility. As a point of contact between the Habsburg state and the male population the military also inculcated recruits with a common set of imperial ideologies, often also enabling them to experience regions of the empire far beyond their homes. This helps to explain how both the nationalist and imperial loyalties among the troops fit together far more often than they may have contradicted each other. On the other hand, while the reformers of 1868 banned several cruel and irrational traditional punishments, memoirs and letters by recruits often complained about the harsh physical penalties that continued to be meted out in local barracks life.[9]

Entering the War

In the summer of 1914 a small circle of men in the military high command, foremost among them Chief of the General Staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf (1852-1925), wanted Austria-Hungary to declare war on its neighbor Serbia. Ostensibly, they sought to punish Serbia for what they claimed had been its government’s proven involvement in planning the 24 June assassinations. This group sought a pretext to declare war and to thwart Serb territorial ambitions in the region, while limiting the attraction of Serbia to Serb-speakers in Austria-Hungary. Serbia and its ally Russia had already been frustrated by Austria-Hungary’s annexation of the former Ottoman provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908. Serbia had originally hoped to take the provinces for itself, and thereby to gain an outlet to the sea. Worried about the growth of Serb influence in the region, military leaders viewed with alarm the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 that pitted Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro, and Serbia against the Ottoman Empire and then later (with Romania), against each other. After the First Balkan War, when it looked as if Serbia would gain an outlet to the Adriatic Sea, Austria-Hungary intervened to block those ambitions by promoting the creation of an Albanian state on the Adriatic coast.

In 1914 some military leaders hoped to crush Serbia before the latter could become much stronger, and before its Russian ally — still smarting from defeat by the Japanese in 1904-1905 — developed the military strength to intervene effectively in the Balkans. The assassination of the Archduke and his wife by Gavrilo Princip (1894-1918), a young pro-Serbian activist from Bosnia, gave them the opportunity they sought. Their ultimatum to Serbia and their subsequent decision for war in 1914 — encouraged to some extent by German military leaders — impacted the lives of millions of people around the world. And contrary to what the military expected, Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war against Serbia did not remain a localized conflict. Serbia’s ally Russia declared war on Austria-Hungary, and the latter’s ally Germany declared war on Russia and then on France, Russia’s Entente ally. When German troops crossed into neutral Belgium in their march on France, Great Britain declared war on both Germany and Austria-Hungary, ostensibly to protect Belgian neutrality. Later, Austria-Hungary’s neighbors and near neighbors Italy, Montenegro, Romania, and Greece joined the Entente forces while Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire entered the war on the side of Austria-Hungary and Germany.

To understand how Austria-Hungary went to war so easily, we also need to consider the distinctive institutional position the military occupied in the Habsburg state. According to the Settlement of 1867 that had created Austria-Hungary, the military remained under the sole purview of the emperor-king. As in imperial Germany, the ruler’s full control over the military made it a kind of separate society governed under different rules and by different authorities, unlike the situation in states like France or Britain where civilian governments exercised ultimate control over the military. The Austrian and Hungarian parliaments did have the right to amend and approve military budgets, however, and over time, their politicians used this right to limit the influence and power of the military. Already in the 1880s the general staff became used to trimming back its funding demands for everything from weapons and ammunition to the renovation or construction of military fortifications. In peacetime at least, the two parliaments’ powers of the purse repeatedly limited the theoretically absolute powers of the emperor-king and the military elite. Although the military retained structural independence, it gradually became poorer in numbers and equipment over the decades. This was particularly the case in the decade before 1914 when because of political conflict the Hungarian government had frozen military budgets. From 1870 to 1910 Austro-Hungarian expenditures on the military as a percentage of the budget declined from 24.1 percent to 15.7 percent. By 1914 in per capita terms, Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia each spent far more on its military than did Austria-Hungary. Only about 25 percent of Austro-Hungarian male citizens were called up to serve, compared to the astonishing rate of 86 percent in France, 40 percent in Germany, and 37 percent in Russia. This unfavorable rate too resulted largely from unwillingness of the parliaments to support the military’s budgetary demands.[10] In 1914 the monarchy could mobilize some 1.8-2 million men, compared to Germany’s 2.4 million and Russia’s 3.4 million. Not surprisingly, some of Austria-Hungary’s commanders chafed against parliament’s constitutional powers, seeing both the legislatures and civilian bureaucracies as dangerous rivals.

In terms of munitions, the situation was slightly more favorable to Austria-Hungary, although here as well the state could not take advantage of its technically superior position. In 1914 Austria-Hungary was a major global manufacturer of armaments with industries centered in Bohemia, Lower and Upper Austria, and Fiume. Yet in the years leading up to 1914 most of these munitions were exported to Germany, the Balkan States, the Ottoman Empire, Latin America, and China.[11] This again was due in part to severe budgetary constraints.

The growing influence of nationalist and socialist political parties on state policy was also anathema to Austria-Hungary’s aristocratic and military elite, many of whom observed Austria’s extensions of the franchise and the rising influence of political parties with alarm. Socialized in a conservative culture that set itself apart from the rest of society and rejected civilian norms, they feared that the growing influence of popular politics and political conflict weakened the state and diminished Austria-Hungary’s great power reputation. To these men and their allies in the aristocracy and parts of the bureaucracy (the Foreign Ministry), undisciplined political squabbles in parliament encouraged social conflict and weakened popular loyalty to the state and dynasty. They could not see that Austria-Hungary was perhaps stronger precisely because of the ongoing liberalization of politics it had experienced since the 1860s. They favored war as the only means to liberate themselves from parliamentary constraints, and to stop Austria-Hungary’s alleged decline as a great power.

Nothing illustrates this effort better than the secret emergency legislation the military high command managed to have passed during various war scares from 1908 to 1914. The Bosnian annexation of 1908 had created tense relations with Russia, Serbia, Montenegro, and the Ottoman Empire. Anxieties around the Balkan Wars (1912-1914) made it easier for the high command to persuade governments to pass legislation ensuring that in case of war, the military would replace civilian rule with its own administration. This administration could in turn impose military justice and military discipline on both the general population and the civilian bureaucracies in Austria. It could suspend the power of elected institutions and the functioning of the normal judiciary, and this is exactly what happened in the summer of 1914.

The secret legislation also created a War Surveillance Office (Kriegsüberwachungsamt, or KÜA), a new military bureaucracy designed to spy on Austrians, resident foreigners, displaced people, and prisoners of war (POWs).[12] When war with Serbia seemed likely in July of 1914, military leaders abruptly took over the powers of the civil administration and judiciary. In Austria, at least, the civilian government did not put up a fight. Using paragraph 14 of the constitution that allowed governments to legislate when parliament was not in session, the Austrian prime minister, Count Karl Stürgkh (1859-1916), put Austria on a wartime footing, suspended parliament and the crownland legislatures indefinitely, placed several civil rights on hold (including the right to trial by jury for war crimes), and introduced strict wartime censorship. Not all of these measures applied to Hungary. There, the government jealously guarded its national prerogatives. Throughout the war both the Hungarian and Croatian parliaments remained open, while censorship was not as strict as in Austria. Yet if Hungary’s leaders treated the military measures with suspicion, they did not shy away from imposing their own dictatorial wartime measures. The Hungarian Ministry of Defense created its own War Surveillance Commission (Hadifelügyleti Bizottság or HB).

Taken together, all of these measures introduced what historian and contemporary jurist Josef Redlich (1869-1936) famously called a “military dictatorship.” Admittedly, each combatant state introduced wartime measures that limited its citizens’ civil rights and the flow of information, but historians agree that from the start, Austria-Hungary’s was harsher than the others.

War at the Fronts

Austria-Hungary began mobilizing for a single-front war on 28 July.[13] In less than a year however, and for the duration, Austria-Hungary found itself trapped in a three-front war for which it had not planned. The War Command (Armeeoberkommando, or AOK), originally implemented its Plan B (Balkan) to invade Serbia from three sides, even though Conrad von Hötzendorf received intelligence that Russia would soon enter the war. Presuming that Russia would take much longer to mobilize its forces than Austria-Hungary, he sought to strike a decisive blow against Serbia before moving his forces to Galicia to meet the Russians. By the end of July however, when it was obvious that Russia was mobilizing, a nervous Conrad shifted some units north to Galicia. Thanks to the worried intervention of Hungarian Prime Minister István Tisza (1861-1918) and the emperor-king himself on 31 July, Conrad now reversed course completely, replacing War Plan B with a new plan that required a radically different deployment of those forces that were already on their way south to Serbia. The War Ministry’s transport chief advised that to avoid chaos on the rail lines, all units would have to return to their original bases and begin mobilization all over again. Any numerical advantage over the Russians that the Austro-Hungarian forces might have gained through early mobilization was quickly lost.

These were hardly the only mistakes of the first weeks of mobilization and combat. The hesitations and incompetent reversals meant that Austro-Hungarian forces arrived in Galicia too late, in far too small numbers, and at disadvantageous sites that required exhausting marches on foot for them to take up their positions. Defeat was swift and massive. By 26 August the Austro-Hungarian forces in Galicia were in full retreat. On 3 September the Russians captured the Galician capital of L’viv/ Lwów/ Lemberg. On 11 September Conrad ordered a general retreat to the east of Cracow. This first month of war in Galicia brought 100,000 military deaths, over 200,000 wounded, and 100,000 captured. A cholera epidemic, brutal massacres of (usually Ukrainian) civilians wrongly suspected of sedition, and the desperate flight of thousands of civilians westward made the situation even more chaotic. Inside the Russian lines only the Galician fortress at Przemyśl on the San River held out until 22 March 1915 when its 110,000 defenders surrendered.

The Austro-Hungarian campaign against Serbia was equally unsuccessful although with fewer immediate consequences. The Austro-Hungarians conducted their invasion in forbidding terrain with far fewer troops than planned for. As historian Alexander Watson argues, the challenges faced by the troops had in fact been anticipated in Habsburg war exercises a few months earlier, yet no changes had been made to the strategy. The military did not advance very far into Serbia, but it wreaked cruel havoc on those civilians it encountered. Fearing the actions of legendary Komitadjie guerillas, and aware that not all Serb troops were in uniform, the Habsburg troops massacred thousands of civilians and burned villages preemptively. Skillful Serb defenses soon countered the invasion, and by 25 August the Austro-Hungarians had fully retreated from Serbia. Later in 1914 an invasion that briefly held the city of Belgrade ended quickly with Austro-Hungarian forces in retreat for the winter. At the end of 1914 Austria-Hungary faced a dire military situation. The early strategic decisions taken by the AOK contradicted military logic and exemplified a kind of wishful thinking—utterly unrelated to facts—in which Conrad and many of his colleagues repeatedly indulged in their planning.

In 1915, with considerable German assistance, Austria-Hungary won back most of Galicia and prevented a Russian advance in Bukovina. Together, German and Austro-Hungarian forces even conquered and occupied much of Russian Poland and the Baltic. Also in 1915, Austria-Hungary managed to conquer and occupy Serbia, as two new allies had joined the Balkan front on the side of the Central Powers: Bulgaria (14 October 1915) and the Ottoman Empire (12 November 1914).

In April 1915, however, Italy also abandoned its erstwhile ally to join the war on the side of the Entente, thanks to promises of massive territorial aggrandizement at the expense of Austria-Hungary in the secret Treaty of London. This raised the number of fronts on which the badly over-stretched Austro-Hungarian military fought to three. The Germans dispatched reinforcements to aid the faltering Habsburg forces, but were too late to stop an attack led by Conrad on Italy in Trentino, in June, which failed. In August, however, the Central Powers managed at least to halt an offensive against the Russians led by Aleksei Brusilov (1853-1926), to retake Galicia. On the Balkan front in 1916, Austro-Hungarian forces preemptively occupied Albania. The end of the year saw the Russians having gained some territory in Galicia and Bukovina, and the Italians managing to take the border town of Gorizia/Gorica on the Isonzo/Soča front.

In 1917, however, Austria-Hungary won back most of the territory that had been lost to the Russians in Galicia and Bukovina. Its troops occupied large parts of Russian Poland, which Austria-Hungary administered from the city of Lublin. In October and November, with the help of German units sent from the Eastern Front, it won its greatest victory of the war, against Italy, in the 12th battle of the Isonzo/Soča at Caporetto/ Kobarid. Austro-Hungarian and German forces broke through the Italian lines, advancing far into Italian territory. Some 10,000 Italians were killed and another 30,000 wounded, while some 265,000 men were taken prisoner. The victory created little cause for celebration, however, given deteriorating conditions on the home front. At the same time, the Bolshevik revolution in Russia brought the war on the Eastern Front essentially to a standstill before the end of 1917.

Mobilizations On the Home Fronts

From 1914 to 1917 Austria-Hungary also experienced revolutionary economic and social transformations on the home front. From changes in labor and gender relations to ongoing crises in food provision, the movements of thousands of refugees, and the rise of rumors and denunciation as a way of life, the war revolutionized every aspect of what came to be known as the “home front.” The AOK had not wanted to mobilize civilians to fight a “total war.” In fact, its aim had been the very opposite: to prevent the participation of civilians in the war effort and to limit the influence of civilians and political parties on war policy. This presumption swiftly proved impossible when the war showed no sign of ending by December 1914. As military casualties mounted, both food and munitions supplies dwindled, and as refugees from the east clogged the highways, the military found itself forced to call for greater levels of civilian participation in and sacrifice for the war effort. The long-term price for this mobilization soon became apparent. Those who suffered on the home front treated their sacrifice as equivalent to that made by men in battle. In return, women and men on the home front demanded adequate food supplies as their right, and political and social welfare reforms after the war to recognize the key roles they had played. Institutionally the regional Social Democratic parties offered the government their expertise, and their unions’ enforced worker cooperation in return for influence over domestic wartime policy and the promise of post-war political reforms. Nationalist activists too — those who were not at the front — linked their charitable wartime efforts to demands for political recognition and territorial autonomy after the war. In 1917-18 the Austrian government even endowed a new Ministry for Social Welfare whose administrators sought the expertise and experience of regional nationalist welfare organizations to target and distribute benefits. As historian Tara Zahra has argued, this development only increased the popularity of nationalist organizations among people desperate for assistance in the final year of the war.[14]

The military dictatorship may have exercised brutal control over society in the early war years, but it could not avoid raising legitimate expectations for a radically reformed post-war world. These developments were especially clear in policies around food and labor. Food shortages in Austria-Hungary developed almost immediately after the start of the war. Peasants and draft animals were conscripted for the war effort at the start of the 1914 harvest season. Austria’s biggest producer of grain, Galicia, was swiftly occupied by Russia. Hungary, which had annually exported over 2 million tons of grain to Austria, now had to feed the military (over 3 million enlisted men and draft animals). By 1916 Hungary could barely spare 100,000 tons for Austria. Finally, an allied blockade of the Central Powers made it impossible to import foodstuffs or fuels from other global sources.

Early in 1915 the Austrian government decreed that 50 percent of the flour used for bread had to be replaced by ersatz products — at first barley, corn, or potato, and later far less palatable options like sawdust. Not only was it increasingly difficult to obtain foodstuffs, but what foodstuffs could be obtained saw a big drop in their nutritional value. In February 1915 the government created a War Grain Control Agency to oversee the distribution of flour and bread. Local and regional governments created cartels charged with collecting foodstuffs and monitoring their distribution. Soon local municipal governments introduced ration cards for a range of products from bread to milk, sugar, fats, and meats. However, the main problem was shortage: local markets received far too few foodstuffs to fill the needs of those who presented ration cards. This in turn led to the urban practice of lining up at market shops and stalls often overnight, in order to obtain rationed food. Since many working-class women were drafted to work long hours in munitions factories, it was often children who lined up all night to hold places for their mothers.

The governments tried to influence demand for food by controlling its consumption. Businesses and later families had to observe a number of meatless days per week. A 1917 law, for example, banned restaurants from providing sugar on tables or sweetening drinks. Municipal governments created public dining halls and kitchens to provide people with access to cheap meals. Consumers repeatedly reacted with anger and frustration to the government’s inability to guarantee adequate food supplies. Rumors attributed shortages to hoarders, black marketeers, Jewish conspirators, and especially to selfish peasants who allegedly profited from the misery of urban folk. Violence in markets and protest marches to town halls put enormous pressure on municipal authorities, who themselves had no real ability to alleviate the situation. By the last year of war women and children regularly left the cities to forage for any available food in nearby countryside areas, although the governments also sought to prevent this practice by confiscating returning people’s knapsacks at railway stations.

Thanks to harsh wartime censorship, a rampant culture of rumor replaced traditional sources of news both in urban neighborhoods and rural villages. As historian Maureen Healy argued for wartime Vienna, when faced with an economy of rationed information, ordinary people reacted to censorship and propaganda by spreading rumors or denouncing neighbors in an effort to maintain what they believed were standards of fairness and legality.[15]

Hunger and malnutrition exhausted the denizens of the home front, but so did the state’s voracious appetite for labor in war-related industries. The desperate need for particular products, from uniforms and boots to munitions and ammunition led to a haphazard expansion of certain businesses and factories,[16] as well as an extension of working hours and harsh labor discipline inside their walls. Scarce material resources were allocated to war industries, further limiting available consumer goods. Male workers with valuable skills were released from frontline military service, but they worked under harsh military discipline in the factories. Legislation from 1912 gave the War Ministry the right to take over whole factories, and to place their workers under military law.[17] As the war ground on, and every male capable of serving at the front was called up, the state did not shy away from mobilizing women into industries previously dominated by men, such as the chemicals and munitions industries. As early as October 1914 the Austrian government lifted restrictions on women’s night work, encouraging employers to hire women. By 1916 women constituted 40 percent of the workforce in Austria’s war industries, while at one munitions factory in Budapest women constituted 50 percent of the workforce. Women in these factories worked long shifts and faced recurring threats from horrific industrial accidents, given lax safety standards and ongoing pressures to raise production rates. Austrian and Hungarian municipalities also hired women to replace men in public sectors, for example as conductors on city tramway lines. Even the military hired women to release men at desk jobs for service at the front.

The intensification of women’s wartime employment often had serious repercussions for working-class family life, something noted frequently by contemporary social commentators. Journalists and social welfare experts worried about a rise in what they called “juvenile delinquency,” unsupervised children playing in the streets, smoking cigarettes, attending the cinema. More importantly, children increasingly suffered from malnutrition, disease, and early death.[18] Fears of increased prostitution both at the front and at home centered on similar social hygiene concerns but also fed a belief that the war had created a dangerous decline of morals.[19] Despite harsh military discipline and repeated threats to men of being sent back to the front, these ongoing and intolerable conditions led to increasing waves of industrial strikes in 1917 and particularly in 1918. Across the monarchy local Social Democratic leaders and party functionaries increasingly lost control over the industrial actions taken both by unionized and non-unionized workers.

In its search for scapegoats to explain defeat or hunger, the military treated civilians it considered to be suspicious with harsh brutality, implying explicitly that some ethnic or national groups were more valuable, loyal, and favored than others who were responsible for military failures. The high command’s obsessive anxieties about the loyalties of some language groups (at first primarily Serb and Ukrainian speakers, later Czech, Italian, or Romanian speakers) created a kind of hysteria, especially in the very first months of the war. The KÜA appealed to patriotic Austrians to report any subversive elements, rarely defining what a “subversive element” might be. Seeking out signs of treason, the military encouraged civilian administrators, local police, and provincial gendarmes (now under military command) to punish suspicious civilian behavior in non-war zones. Military leaders repeatedly and unsuccessfully pressured Austrian Prime Minister Stürgkh to extend their court martialing powers to non-war zone regions like Bohemia, where they falsely claimed that thousands of domestic Slav (Czech nationalist) traitors lurked.[20]

Different nationalist groups often accused their local nationalist opponents of fomenting treachery on the home front. Neighbors could turn swiftly against each other, reporting strange rumors about each other to local authorities. In Hungary, even before the start of military mobilization, popular initiatives attacked the alleged treachery of Serb gymnastics societies or Sokols. Prime Minister Tisza directed county administrators to “demonstrate strength” against the non-Hungarian populations (specifically Serb, Romanian, and Ukrainian speakers). When war was declared, police in Southern Hungary immediately arrested several Sokol members. Anti-Serb riots fueled by local anti-Serb political parties broke out in linguistically and religiously mixed regions of Croatia and Bosnia. Military officials used these disorders as an excuse to clamp down on a range of Serb national organizations in Hungary.[21] In Southern Styria, whose population was both Slovene- and German speaking, German nationalist denunciations of random local Slovene speakers (including priests) led to over 900 unjustified arrests and imprisonments. The imprisoned, usually loyal patriots, often lost their employment as well as their previous confidence in the justness of the state. The hysteria died down swiftly after barely a month, however, when regional administrators demanded a reassessment of the situation, insisting that the gendarmes only make arrests where evidence actually warranted it.[22]

At the front in Galicia or in occupied Serbia, these alleged concerns could produce brutal massacres of civilians, usually with no trials, and based on scant evidence. In the first month of war the military raised suspicions against the entire Ukrainian population of east Galicia, presuming, based on no evidence, that they who had previously been characterized as loyal “Tyroleans of the East,” were somehow natural allies of the invading Russians. As Conrad explained to Redlich in September 1914, “we fight on our own territory as in hostile land. Everywhere Ruthenes [a term for Ukrainians] are being executed under martial law.”[23]

The persecution of groups deemed suspicious by the AOK often became a means of explaining military failure. One of the most enduring legends of the war, for example, recounts the mass defections of Czech-speaking troops to the Russians on the Eastern Front. Later investigations proved these accusations false, but the War Ministry never investigated those responsible for circulating the anti-Czech rumors. Ironically, these false accusations later became the basis for several heroic foundational myths in the first Czechoslovak Republic. It served the later interests of both Czech and German nationalists to repeat and amplify these stories.[24]


Late in 1914, over 7,000 Ukrainian citizens — often whole villages — were deported from Galicia to notorious internment camps in Moravia (Theresienstadt) and Styria (Thalerhof). Treated as enemies of the state, the deportees suffered horrendous conditions. Other camps had to be constructed to hold the hundreds of thousands of Russian and Italian POWs who often were used as forced labor in the agricultural regions where their camps were located. A completely new series of camps were also built to house refugees from Galicia and later, those from the southern parts of Tyrol (Trentino), and from regions of today’s Slovenia close to the Italian Front.[25]

The challenge of refugees, like the Russian invasion itself, caught the state completely unprepared. In September and October of 1914, tens of thousands from Galicia and Bukovina fled the Russian advance on foot or in makeshift wagons, taking with them what little they could rescue from the invaders. Estimates suggest that between 200,000 and 300,000 people fled this early invasion. But where should they go and how should they survive? Officially, refugees were the responsibility of the two governments, which owed them aid and a small daily allowance. Refugees were divided according to their citizenship status (Austrian or Hungarian), their financial means, and often according to their region of origin, language, or religion. Hungary refused to take Austrian refugees, and those who crossed the Carpathians to northern Hungary, for example, had to be sent further west, either by train or on foot. Ideally all refugees should have been transferred in an organized fashion from official sorting stations near Galicia to specific inland destinations, so that they would not overwhelm the cities. Wealthier refugees who could provide for themselves were permitted to travel to their chosen destinations, usually cities. The vast majority, however, with no means to support themselves, ended up in holding camps hurriedly constructed by the Austrian state starting in September 1914.[26]

The first of these camps — really fenced-in barracks — were completed in October, and refugees from Galicia arrived in numbers that soon overwhelmed their original capacities. Sanitary conditions were disastrous, and in the first winter thousands died of diseases like typhus. There was almost no medical care at the camps largely because most government physicians had been sent to the front. By 1915, however, conditions changed slightly for the better, thanks in part to newspaper accounts that — despite censorship — managed to publicize the inmates’ suffering. Worried about accusations of unacceptable conditions for its citizens, the Austrian Interior Ministry took steps to improve conditions. Camps were expanded; sanitary, medical, and kitchen facilities built; and later, churches, synagogues, and classrooms for both children and adults were added. Some municipalities offered employment opportunities for inmates outside the camps. Aid from international relief organizations also helped to ameliorate conditions. Nevertheless, the prison-like character of the camps and the fact that some people had to remain there for years often created feelings of depression and despair among the residents. The presence of refugees either on city streets or in rural refugee camps often raised opposition from among local residents, and on occasion produced violence against the newcomers. Many saw refugees as a drain on local resources, as well as a danger to public health or even to public morals. Some municipalities, however, lobbied for a refugee camp within their territory because the government also promised to build a desirable form of infrastructure such as a new hospital.


The year 1917 brought political transformation to Austria-Hungary, if no improvement in wartime conditions. The most consequential change was the death of Emperor-King Francis Joseph after almost sixty-eight years as ruler. Many people found it difficult to imagine a future without this familiar and unifying figure as head of state. The new emperor-king was his twenty-nine-year-old grandnephew Charles I (1887-1922). The heir may have lacked experience, but he conveyed a youthfully energetic image, combined with devotion to his wife and children, personal piety, and a certain early popularity with the troops. Together with his wife Zita (1892-1989), Charles visited several war fronts. Zita assumed leadership of Austrian and Hungarian war charities. Charles’ accession doomed the military dictatorship. He removed Conrad as chief of the General staff, and himself replaced the old Archduke Friedrich von Österreich-Teschen (1856-1936) as commander in chief. He appointed Count Ottokar Czernin (1872-1932), a member of Franz Ferdinand’s inner circle, and a man viewed as hostile to Hungary’s interests, as foreign minister.

In domestic affairs Charles sought at first to ameliorate social and nationalist conflict by considering a variety of concessions to different groups. In March 1917 he agreed to create a complaint commission for workers in Austrian war industries, and in May he reopened the Austrian parliament. He repeatedly pressured the Tisza government to broaden the Hungarian suffrage (eventually firing Tisza), he amnestied all prisoners who had committed political offenses, including several Czech nationalist politicians held on trumped-up charges of treason, and he reduced harsh military censorship. None of these efforts, however, could have much effect if Charles could not end the war and improve desperate living conditions. In the short run, his reform efforts simply created more open political conflict. Nationalists of all stripes demanded concessions for the post-war settlement, yet there was no way to balance them without estranging them. This was especially the case with the government’s efforts to promise Polish nationalists a state (with a Habsburg ruler) after the war, while offering Ukrainians/ Ruthenes support for an independent Ukraine. Both claimed the same Galician territory. At the same time, a May Declaration of southern Slavs in Austria that sought to establish a unified southern Slav kingdom within Austria became the basis for a popular petition movement. Charles could hardly accede to South Slav demands for a trialist restructuring of the Dual Monarchy, however, if Hungary would not countenance it. Hungarian politicians angrily complained that nationalists in Austria were even permitted to debate and publish public reform proposals that would have diminished Hungarian territory.[27]

Charles also explored possible ways to take Austria-Hungary out of the war, none of which could remove him from the tightening grip of German control. Using the mediation efforts of Zita’s brother, Sixtus, Prince of Bourbon Parma (1886-1934) who served in the Belgian military, Charles tried secretly to open negotiations with the French and British governments, offering vague support for French efforts to regain Alsace-Lorraine, agreeing to the restoration of Belgium, and even contemplating a small territorial concession to Italy in Trentino. In 1917 British and French leaders showed some interest in these discussions, but Italy would not give up the vast territorial gains it had been promised. In addition to these efforts, the Austro-Hungarian government undertook secret discussions with the United States. None of these bore fruit, and a year later, in 1918, the French humiliated Charles by publicizing his peace efforts. He in turn denied the story and was forced to give Germany even greater influence over Austro-Hungarian operations.

In military terms the year 1917 saw the extraordinary victory in November at Caporetto/Kobarid that essentially ended Italian activity; the occupation of Romania by Germany and Austria-Hungary; and the termination of significant fighting in the east. On the other hand, the success of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the end of the war there produced new anxieties about thousands of returning POWs who might infect the domestic population with Bolshevik revolutionary doctrine. Instead of a hero’s welcome, Austro-Hungarian POWs found themselves subjected to medical quarantine and political reeducation.[28] Moreover, military success did little to alleviate popular anger about conditions at home, even though some touted the prospect of a so-called “bread peace” in the east.

The year 1918 opened with massive industrial strikes across Austria-Hungary that socialist leaders could barely contain. Similar strike waves crippled Hungarian and Austrian industries in March and June of 1918. In March the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk ended the war in the east, and Austro-Hungarian units advanced into Russian Ukraine seeking grain supplies. The Ukrainian farmers they encountered were happy to have the protection of the Central Powers against Bolshevik and White Russian forces, but they were not interested in surrendering their produce to anyone. The military responded with brutal requisitions, a strategy that by May 1918 was no longer effective.

In 1918 the allies — now including the United States — gradually came to support the eventual break-up of the Habsburg Monarchy, something they and Woodrow Wilson’s (1856-1924) Fourteen Points had previously avoided.[29] Lobbying efforts by Austro-Hungarian politicians in exile like the Czechs’ Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (1850-1937) and Edvard Beneš (1884-1948) had produced few effects until the end of 1917. Now with Russia out of the war, the allies adopted a new strategy to weaken the Central Powers by supporting independent statehood for Austria-Hungary’s various nationalist groups. At the same time, by the end of 1917, the first units of so-called “Czech Legionaries” had been founded in France, made up of Austrian POWs in Russia or Italy who agreed to fight for the allies, a phenomenon that grew rapidly in 1918 among Italian and South Slav groups as well, and that strengthened post-war nationalist claims to having participated actively in the creation of the new or expanded states.

By May of 1918, lack of coal forced several steel factories to shut down. Massive strikes continued in June, desertions from the military became increasingly noticeable, and occasional mutinies threatened. The unfortunate Conrad (now commander on the Italian Front) argued for a renewed attack at the Piave river to reinvigorate the war effort. This poorly planned final effort ended swiftly in military catastrophe, as starving troops failed to advance in terrible weather on difficult terrain. By September, when the Bulgarian Front collapsed, it was clear that the war had been lost. In October the resurgent Italians took revenge for their humiliation at Caporetto/Kobarid with a successful offensive.

On 2 October when a new Austrian prime minister promised legislation to create territorial federalization, few politicians paid much attention, except for those in Hungary who saw it as a violation of the 1867 Settlement. By this point most regional and nationalist politicians engaged in gradual takeovers of provincial governments. On 5 October a self-styled national council of Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs, in Zagreb proclaimed itself the representative of the South Slav peoples in Austria-Hungary. On 11 October Polish nationalists created a similar council in Cracow, seeking to join Galicia to a new Polish Republic. On 17 October Romanian nationalists from Bukovina formed a Romanian national Council in Vienna. These regional councils were not always specifically nationalist in character. On 20 October, for example, a “Committee of Public Welfare” in Graz claimed authority over Styria and its economy. On 16 October Charles issued a Manifesto to federalize the Austrian half of the empire, authorizing the national councils to organize their own regions. “Each national component will form its own state organization,” he decreed, while at the same time he recognized that a common state was necessary for the survival of legality, fairness, and impartiality. After two and a half years of a brutal military dictatorship, and four years of starvation, exhaustion, and disease, Charles’ efforts to restore the rule of law and reform the monarchy’s structure counted for too little. At the same time, it seemed that with this proclamation Charles had in fact authorized local national councils to take full control of their regions.

In Vienna, German-speaking parliamentary deputies created a national council on 21 October — the “provisional national assembly for German Austria.” In Budapest, massive demonstrations and street fighting at the end of October toppled the government and brought the revolutionary Count Mihály Károlyi (1875-1955) to power, a move retroactively affirmed by Charles. The Károlyi government then terminated the 1867 Settlement with Austria, while also promising an unspecified form of autonomy to Hungary’s various national groups. On 28 October the Czech National Council took control of Prague and confirmed the proclamation of a Czechoslovak state. Throughout the region local provincial authorities created short-lived mini-states like “German Bohemia” or “German Southern Moravia” or the Hutsul Republic. Their officials had to find daily solutions to pressing social problems without help from Vienna or Budapest. In Transylvania, some communities declared their independence from Hungary to join Romania, while other communities declared themselves Romanian, but expressed loyalty to Budapest.[30] In L’viv/Lwów/Lemberg, on the night of 31 October/1 November, soldiers of the Habsburg military, loyal to the Ukrainian Council, occupied the public utilities and proclaimed L’viv the capital of a new Ukrainian state. On 11 November, as the war ended in the west, Charles announced his withdrawal from participation in state affairs, but not his abdication. The next day the Provisional National Assembly of German Austria proclaimed a republic with socialist Karl Renner (1870-1950) as chancellor in a coalition between the Socialists and their rivals, the Christian Socials. On 16 November, Károlyi proclaimed a Hungarian People’s Republic.


There is no agreed date on which the Habsburg Monarchy ceased to exist, either practically, formally, or institutionally. Taken together, the declarations of regional independence in October and Charles’s non-abdication ended the empire. Yet despite those regional proclamations of independence, it was usually the military situation on the ground that determined the longer-term political territorial outcomes of this revolutionary moment. It was not until 6 November 1921, after two failed efforts by Charles to retake the Hungarian throne, that the Hungarian Parliament formally annulled Hungary’s adherence to the Pragmatic Sanction, the 18th-century legislation that had bound Hungary to a unified Habsburg dynastic state.

Much current scholarship explores Austria-Hungary’s powerful legacies to the successor states in fields ranging from public administration, law codes, political systems, and economic policy, to educational and cultural policies. Continuities are also clear in the realms of military and administrative personnel in the successor states.[31] Nevertheless, each successor state legitimated its independent existence and territorial enhancements in a language that strongly rejected connection to any Habsburg imperial past. Their nationalist claims rested on an ideology of nationalist self-determination linked to ideas of popular sovereignty that contrasted their own allegedly democratic character with what they claimed had been that of an oppressive empire. That characterization was certainly effective among those who remembered the horrific suffering of the war years, but it could not hide the long-term and quite visible continuities of empire.

Pieter M. Judson, European University Institute

Section Editors: Gunda Barth-Scalmani; Richard Lein