When the First World War began, the Austrian Reichsrat in Vienna was closed, having been prorogued on 16 March 1914 by Minister-President Karl Stürgkh (1859-1916) because of political gridlock in Bohemia. The Abgeordnetenhaus consisted of 516 deputies, representing eight different ethnic groupings, divided again in many ideological and social factions, the largest of which were the Germans (the Christian Socials, the Deutscher Nationalverband, and the German-speaking Social Democrats).[1] This was in stark contrast to Hungary, where the Reichstag in Budapest continued to meet throughout the war and offered some semblance of civilian control over the war regime.

Stürgkh’s Wartime Autocracy

Stürgkh planned on holding the Reichsrat hostage to a settlement of the Bohemian crisis for months to come. This made sense both in terms of the robust support he enjoyed from the aged Francis Joseph I, Emperor of Austria (1830-1916), who embraced a passive, reactive governance role, and the glaring fact that most high-level opinion leaders in Vienna expected that Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria-Este (1863-1914), with his radical plans for constitutional reconstruction, would soon ascend the throne. Hence, one might argue that, while the methods employed by Stürgkh in the context of March 1914 were logical and plausible, they quickly proved disastrous in wartime.

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the decision of Count Leopold Berchtold (1863-1942) and other leaders for a retributive war against Serbia presented Stürgkh with a ready-made excuse to extend his autocracy. Not only did Stürgkh refuse to negotiate with parliamentary leaders, but on the eve of the war on 23 July 1914 he ordered the current session of the Reichsrat closed, with its building soon to be converted into a temporary military hospital, arguing to the Cabinet that only by eliminating the immunity that parliamentary deputies enjoyed could the government prevent “any disruptions of the military measures” now being implemented.[2] Open political gatherings were unilaterally prohibited throughout the monarchy. Unlike the other Great Powers, Austria thus entered the war without formal political representation, with the political parties as public, corporate organizations crippled in their ability either to represent or to shape public opinion. In particular contrast to its German wartime ally, Austria lacked the kind of de facto popular representative forum for public opinion provided to the parties in the Reichstag in Berlin.[3] Politics now became privatized, involving small groups of conspirators, each attempting to marshal prewar contacts and influence to achieve minor favors from one or another ministry or from the Army High Command (AOK). In the free play given to such private deals, the war simply intensified the capacity of the Austrian party system to be manipulated by the civil service, as frequently happened before 1914.

In late July Stürgkh issued emergency decrees restricting the use of jury trials, enabling civil and criminal cases for many crimes to be tried before military tribunals, empowering the army with vast authority, and setting aside fundamental rights such as freedom of assembly and of speech. A cascade of other measures were also announced, such as restricting telephone and telegraphic traffic and prohibiting the importation of certain key materials.[4] The restrictions on jury trials and the transfer of jurisdiction for many criminal delicts to the army applied throughout the Austrian side of the empire, whereas for regions that were deemed to be protected war zones the AOK received the further right to issue decrees involving vast areas of domestic policy, to declare martial law if deemed necessary to protect military interests, and to assume total responsibility for all judicial proceedings.

Stürgkh portrayed the imperial civil service as having a special emergency policing function against unruly elements who might oppose the preparation for war: “all organs of the state must display total devotion and collective power to the achievement of a single goal, the preparation and deployment of the Wehrmacht in the service of the fatherland….Anyone displaying an indifferent or even hostile attitude against the armed forces and the state should be met with steadfast energy and implacable rigor using all available measures.”[5] That Stürgkh’s primary target here was the Social Democrats is suggested by comments that he made several months earlier in March 1914, when plans for an emergency expansion of military authority in times of war were discussed, where he endorsed a proposal by the Minister of Internal Affairs to suspend civil liberties and to expand military powers over several key border regions of the state in wartime in order to control the “anti-governmental, anti-dynastic and anti-militaristic machinations of International Social Democracy as well as of treasonous and anarchist elements.”[6]

At the time, in the confused rush toward war in the last week of July, these interventions were viewed as transitional emergency measures, with the Fremdenblatt stipulating that the decrees were “only issued on the basis of an emergency and should be rescinded as soon as possible once normal conditions are restored.”[7] Once it was apparent that the war would be not be quickly ended, Stürgkh’s suite of restrictive measures mutated into harsh, semi-permanent instruments of repressive control. Still, given that Stürgkh’s chosen route of administrative hegemony had the emphatic support of the emperor as well as the AOK, it would have been impossible for Stürgkh to relinquish the powers that he had conjured up for his war regime.[8] Even if Stürgkh had wanted to recall parliament, the emperor would have fiercely resisted. Thus, as long as Francis Joseph lived, the issue was moot.[9]

Rivalries of Civilian and Military Control

Once the short-war calculation had been proven wrong, Stürgkh’s phobia about the public embarrassment of a parliament riven by Czech and German feuding (and intramural feuding within each of the camps) and his paranoid obsessions about Austrian Socialism left him with little positive leverage against Conrad von Hötzendorf (1852-1925) and the AOK. The fact that the Social Democrats went out of their way in the last week of July and the first week of August to avoid any direct confrontation with the regime buffered them from the worst effects of the mobilization, but it weakened the moral stature of the central leadership and left Stürgkh with an armory of powerful weapons that were then unleashed against all of civil society, not merely a few imaginary left-wing anarchists or loudmouthed right-wing nationalists. Rudolf Ardelt has rightly characterized the situation of the Social Democrats in late July 1914 as being akin to the harsh repression they endured in the late 1880s.[10] As T. Mills Kelly has recently argued, the regime also came down particularly hard on Czech political groups, which were themselves internally divided, with many bourgeois Czechs unwilling to openly oppose the bureaucratic regime in the first years of the war.[11] Even parties sympathetic to regime, such as the Christian Socials in Vienna, found themselves paralyzed by heavy censorship and by their inability to communicate with voters via their traditional party organizations and media.[12] Otto Urban’s description of the Social Democrats as living within the dangers of “pseudo-legality” after August 1914 was typical for most of their fellow bürgerlich politicians as well.[13] In the absence of a parliamentary counterweight, it was too easy, however, for the high command to poach on the prerogatives of the higher civil service. By mid-1915 Stürgkh would complain bitterly when the army tried to install a general as military governor of Galicia instead of a civilian Statthalter, but having instigated the absolutist game, he could hardly be surprised that others might want to play along.[14] Conrad, in response, charmingly let his associates know that Austria needed a new Minister-President, a “real man, who will act energetically and purposefully …who has the strength and the will to fight ruthlessly against the special interests which are damaging the Monarchy as a whole.”[15]

Rather than causing a centralization of political decision-making and communications, the war led to bitter fragmentation between military and civilian authorities, a state of affairs in which rumors and backhanded dealings formed the principal currency of information exchange. The emergency structures of late July 1914 encouraged a multitude of struggles among rival civil-administrative and military offices and competencies. From a state structure that enjoyed considerable public legitimacy before 1914, the internecine warfare of rival jurisdictions, amid a sea of equally disparate war aims, led to the slow discrediting of all public authority over the next four years. Hence the War Ministry could insist on the prerogative to hear complaints of unhappy rail workers about salaries and cost of living allowances, strictly speaking in the responsibility of the Railway Ministry. At the same time, civilian authorities in Styria could intervene in strike negotiations with coal miners who were technically subject to the local military authorities, out of a sense of responsibility toward the workers and a desire to preserve public order.[16] Similar jurisdictional disputes between military and civilian authorities fill the archives, and paralleled those between Austria and Hungary, which grew in intensity and acrimony as food shortages and manpower losses escalated in 1915 and 1916. As the months wore on, ministerial life became more sullen, with Stürgkh refusing to involve his Cabinet in discussions of foreign affairs and the conduct of the war and restricting their debates to domestic policy issues. After he agreed to accept appointment as Minister of Commerce in November 1915, Alexander von Spitzmüller (1862-1953) found that the Cabinet ministers were systematically kept in the dark on foreign affairs, a situation he found intolerable.[17] Joseph Baernreither (1845-1925) observed in June 1916 that “our Cabinet is the only one in Europe in which the most critical issues of the day are not discussed and may not be discussed.”[18]

German Nationalists and the Octroi

The cynical behavior of the German Nationalist factions, who did not want parliament recalled and for whom the autocratic apparatus of the state was an asset, made it easier for Stürgkh to hang on to a fragile status quo.[19] Stürgkh's decision to ignore parliament was thus welcomed in crucial sectors of Austrian-German national politics, just as it was deeply resented among Slavic political groups. Immediately after the outbreak of the war, groups of Austro-German politicians began formulating domestic war aims programs that called for vast constitutional changes, all of which presumed victory by the Central Powers. These war aims swung between humiliating, self-deprecating submissions to an idealized German economic and political power (offered with a pathos that many Reich Germans found embarrassing) and attempts to squeeze Czech or South Slav independence within the monarchy by enforcing cultural isolation between superior Germans and compliant Slavs. A crucial document illustrating these tendencies was “Der Standpunkt des Deutschen Nationalverbandes zur Neuordnung der Dinge in Österreich,” approved by the leadership of the Nationalverband in March 1916. It combined malicious rhetoric against the Czechs (“the state must be released from the unbearable Slavic hegemony”) with detailed suggestions, including proposals for laws establishing German as the inner language of service and communication (innere Amts- und Verkehrssprache) in all courts and administrative instances; regulations specifying that graduates in all state universities, including the Czech university in Prague, had to pass one of their state examinations in German; and, along with a general reform of the civil service, the creation of language-specific regional administrative areas in Bohemia that were synonymous with the long-standing German demand for linguistically demarcated Kreise. In addition, parliament would be recalled only after the laws were imposed by an Imperial Octroi.[20]

The reaction of the government to these schemes was as unresponsive as it was to calls for a revival of political life. Whatever his views about the intrinsic merits of the Octroi, Stürgkh had no reason to cater to the German Nationalists. Certainly, the aged emperor was no supporter of constitutional experiments during the war.[21] Hence all the commotion, the endless bickering and debate, although it filled many hours of German bourgeois speculation and gossip at dinner parties, ultimately came to nothing by the end of 1916.

Impulses to Imperial Reform and Disintegration in 1917

When the revolution erupted in Russia in March 1917 and Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg (1856-1921) persuaded Wilhelm II, German Emperor (1859-1941) to announce the imminent democratization of the Prussian constitution in his Easter Message on 7 April, any thought that the Crown in Vienna could impose pro-German constitutional changes against the interests of the Slavic population in Bohemia and Moravia became politically unpalatable. The Social Democratic factions had opposed the nationalist Octroi from the beginning.[22] Responding to the pressures to reestablish a legitimate political system, Charles I, Emperor of Austria (1887-1922) ordered the recall of parliament on 25 April 1917. When the Reichsrat re-opened on 30 May 1917, only 421 deputies were present, with ten having been imprisoned for political offenses, and many others deceased or unable to travel to Vienna.[23] In the first weeks of the new session, three years of pent-up frustration at the politics of non-politics and military tyranny over the judicial system exploded. Rather than recalling parliament earlier, when Slavic parties had more to fear, the government’s timing was atrocious. Between 1914 and 1916 Slavic leaders had been forced to endure months of political blackout and harassment, fearing that the German Nationalist plots might succeed. Now, leading Czech, Polish, and South Slav politicians delivered statements justifying political independence, albeit within a possible supra-national central order, and expressing outrage at the anti-constitutional behavior of the war state itself. Because they challenged the heartland of German bourgeois politics in Bohemia, the Czech claims and demands of mid-1917 defined the broader context and ethos of the debate. The Czech Moravian leader Adolf Stránský (1855-1931) denounced the military takeover of the judicial system, sarcastically observing, “What kind of crazy, lunatic state would send civilian judges, sworn to uphold the law and the administration of justice, to serve on the front lines, while keeping military officers at home to act as judges?”[24]

The Social Democrats joined with the Slavic parties in calling for political federalization, with Karl Seitz (1869-1950) and Karl Renner (1870-1950) giving eloquent defenses of a fully democratic state, but the radical German Nationalists would have none of it. Karl Hermann Wolf (1862-1941), accusing the Czechs of treachery, reiterated claims to German hegemony.[25] Those who hoped for imperial reform and peace—as did the Social Democrats—found themselves trapped in a double conundrum: genuine internal reform could not realistically happen until the parties faced the imminence of peace. Yet peace meant German victory or German defeat. The former precluded a willingness on the part of Austro-Germans to concede serious constitutional compromise, while the distinct possibility of the latter made the Czechs inclined to stall for time until their search for independence became more credible.

At this point—mid-1917—one might well speculate if the damage done to the fragile milieu of toleration and understanding that undergirded the pre-war multi-national political system had rendered any consensual agreement on the post-war constitution impossible. Victor Adler (1852-1918) warned in March 1916 that the persecutions endured by Czech journalists and politicians since August 1914 were engendering an atmosphere of deep bitterness that would have the “most serious consequences” for the future of the Austrian state.[26] Still, as late as March 1917 Josef Redlich (1869-1936) encountered a willingness on the part of some leading Czechs to resume conversations with the Germans. Similarly, Hans Loewenfeld-Russ (1873-1945) argued that, in contrast to the bluster of their speeches in parliament, in private meetings Czech leaders in 1917 did show a practical willingness to discuss systematic reforms within the current monarchy.[27] But the opportunity costs for such cooperation rose drastically as the autumn and winter of 1917-18 wore on, and by early 1918 it was implausible for most Czech leaders to imagine any kind of return to the pre-war status quo ante. As Karl Heinold (1862-1943), the Statthalter of Moravia, bluntly warned in October 1917 at a conference of senior administrative leaders called by the emperor to discuss the future of the parliament, “We will only be able to negotiate with the Czechs if they come to believe that the Entente will leave them in the lurch.”[28]

Arthur Polzer-Hoditz (1870-1945), Karl’s chief of staff, urged him to institute procedures for planning constitutional reform, and even got a special department created in the Ministerratspräsidium to prepare draft legislation, directed by Alexander von Hold.[29] But neither Karl nor those around him saw a way to accomplish serious reform without breaking out of the vise of the Ausgleich, for both the Czech and South Slavic questions ultimately depended on the democratization and federalization of the Hungarian political system; and the Polish impasse was far more a foreign-policy challenge to be settled with an increasingly recalcitrant German ally. Thus the autocratic, anti-democratic Octroi scheming of 1915-16 was replaced by equally impotent, democratic constitutional theorizing of 1917-18. The script and the actors had changed, but the play remained the same.

By 1918 three distinct vectors of political disintegration had become apparent, each pulling the monarchy apart from a different direction. To the north, the vagaries of a possible Austro-Polish solution, debated among the German and Austrian administrative elites for almost three years, failed to capture the imagination of Polish politicians in Cracow and Lemberg, many of whom now embraced the ideal of an independent Polish state unconnected and unbeholden to Vienna. To the south, the loyalty of South Slav political elites for the monarchy had been severely weakened by the summer of 1918, even if, in contrast to the Czechs or the Poles, the Southern Slavs had no single large, unified region or capital city to jump start a process of ethnic polarity and independence. Finally, to the east a combination of economic autarky and constitutionalist ressentiment on the part of Hungary defined the last years of the war.[30] Loewenfeld-Russ would later argue that the failure to create effective central coordination mechanisms and policies for food distribution between Hungary and Austria was the most decisive cause of the internal disintegration of the monarchy in 1918, and there is some justice to that view.[31] Compounding these three centripetal “pulls”, was an internal “push”—growing dissidence within the Czech political community in the heartland of the monarchy and the emergence of a stunningly successful lobbying group abroad led by Thomas Masaryk (1850-1937) and Eduard Beneš (1884-1948) intent on the empire’s destruction. Official opinion in the West on the fate of the monarchy was slowly conditioned by ruthlessly effective propaganda wrought by Masaryk and Beneš in London, Paris, and various American cities in 1917 and 1918. Nor had the German national politicians learned anything: the German ambassador in Vienna Count Wedel (1862-1943) reported to Berlin in July 1918 that he had been visited by several hotheads from the Deutscher Nationalverband, who inquired if they could count on German battalions being ready to march into Austria in order to impose the kind of political order they thought necessary.[32]


The final attempt of the Crown to stave off collapse came on 16 October 1918 when Charles issued his People’s Manifesto. In the aftermath of the disastrous Battle of the Piave River in mid-June 1918 and as the final German offensives in France faltered, Charles became desperate for a radical step to save his throne and began toying with plans to grant the nationalities formal federal status as way of foreclosing more radical steps by the Allies.[33] The whole scheme was, in retrospect, futile and demonstrated the hopeless unreality into which the emperor and his closest advisors were rapidly sinking. Formal reactions in most of the press and in German bourgeois circles were negative. Czech politicians feared that the manifesto was a not very secret way to justify the secession of the German-speaking areas of Bohemia from a new Czech state, a conclusion that the most detailed modern evaluation (by Helmut Rumpler) confirms.[34] Charles’ manifesto prescribed that the various assemblies of national representatives, based on national delegations to the Reichsrat, would view themselves as preliminary collectivities to plan the federalization of the empire. None of these bodies, including the German parties, accepted this interpretation of their status or purpose. Legally the manifesto has been blamed for encouraging the bold claims of the Czech and Yugoslav national states as sovereign entities under international law and as allies of the Allied Powers and, in turn, leading to the proclamation of a German-Austrian state on 30 October 1918.[35] Yet the manifesto could not destroy Habsburg rule, since the last years of the war had already eviscerated its moral efficacy. In ceding to those national blocs the possibility of independent action apart from his direct control, Charles was simply expending the last reserves of dynastic privilege that had been assembled over several centuries of Habsburg rule.[36]

John W. Boyer, University of Chicago

Section Editors: Gunda Barth-Scalmani; Richard Lein