Austria-Hungary before World War I

austro-hungarian empire
A map showing the different language groups of the Austro-Hungarian empire

Austria-Hungary was the first nation to declare war in 1914. Prior to this, it was a large and powerful empire that occupied a sizeable portion of Europe and included many different ethnic and language groups.

Europe’s largest entity

Before World War I, Austria-Hungary was the largest political entity in mainland Europe. It spanned almost 700,000 square kilometres and occupied much of central Europe – from the mountainous Tyrol region north of Italy to the fertile plains of Ukraine, to the Transylvanian mountains of eastern Europe.

Eleven major ethno-language groups were scattered across the empire: Germans, Hungarians, Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, Slovak, Slovene, Croatians, Serbs, Italians and Romanians.

Like Germany, the Austro-Hungarian empire was a new state comprised old peoples and cultures. It was formed in 1867 by a compromise agreement between Vienna and Budapest.

A dual monarchy

The empire’s political organisation was complex and unusual because of its origins as two separate kingdoms (it was also known as the Dual Monarchy). The Austro-Hungarian emperor was also the crowned king of both Austria and Hungary.

Austria-Hungary was overseen by an imperial government responsible for matters of foreign policy, military command and joint finance. This government was comprised of the emperor, both prime ministers, three appointed ministers, members of the aristocracy and representatives of the military.

Each of the empire’s two monarchies continued to exist in their own right. They had their own parliament, prime ministers, cabinet and a degree of domestic autonomy. As one might expect in a political union of this kind, there were lingering dissatisfactions and frequent disagreements.

Franz Joseph

austro-hungarian empire
Emperor Franz Joseph, ruler of the empire at the start of World War I

Franz Joseph had ruled the empire since its inception in 1867. In theory, the emperor’s power was absolute – but he usually ruled in the manner of a constitutional monarch, relying on the advice of his ministers.

Franz Joseph had a difficult relationship with Franz Ferdinand, his nephew and (from 1889) heir to the throne. The old emperor disliked Ferdinand’s more liberal political views. He considered him wishy-washy, too easily influenced and ill-equipped for holding together the fragile Dual Monarchy.

While Franz’s politics were undoubtedly conservative, he was no warmonger and certainly nobody’s fool. He often rejected demands for strong action or the deployment of the imperial army, the interests of which he guarded jealously.

Historians like Lewis Namier suggest that Franz Joseph was a reluctant ruler; he was afraid of big decisions and decisive orders, in case they turned out to be wrong:

“Lonely, never sure of himself, and very seldom satisfied with his own performance he worked exceedingly hard from a compelling sense of duty, but without deriving real satisfaction from his work. Shy, sensitive and vulnerable, and apprehensive that he might cut a poor or ridiculous figure, he took refuge in a still and lifeless formalism, which made him appear wooden, and in a spiritual isolation, which made him seem unfeeling or even callous. He could not, and would not ‘improvise’: everything had to be fixed beforehand and no freedom was given to thought or to impulses.”

Economic development

Vienna, the capital of the empire, was a bustling modern city like London and Paris

Economically, the 1800s had been a beneficial period for Austro-Hungary in terms of its economic and financial development.

The empire shed its final feudal remnants and began developing and expanding capitalist institutions such as banking, industry and manufacturing. The National Austro-Hungarian Bank was formed, supplying credit and investment funds, as well as forming a vital financial link between the two halves of the empire.

Manufacturing and industrial production increased rapidly in the western half of the empire, while the east remained its agricultural heart, producing most of the Dual Monarchy’s food. Austro-Hungary’s annual growth was the second-fastest in Europe, behind that of Germany.

The imperial government invested heavily in railway infrastructure, chiefly because of its military benefits. By 1900, the empire had one of Europe’s best rail networks. Industrial growth and modernisation also led to improvements in trade, employment and living standards.

Military strength

The Dual Monarchy’s military force was essentially comprised of three armies: two belonging to the kingdoms of Austria and Hungary and a third newly created force called the Imperial and Royal Army.

There were considerable differences between the three. The two older armies were protected by their respective parliaments so received more funding and better equipment and training. The imperial army, in contrast, was perpetually short of qualified officers – and most of its officers were Austrian.

This onesidedness created problems because Austrian officers spoke German but the majority of soldiers were Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks and others. To combat the language gap, enlisted soldiers were taught a set of 68 single-word commands. This allowed the Imperial and Royal Army to function, though with considerable difficulty in communication.

Most soldiers were conscripts, which did not help morale. Despite these difficulties, the Austro-Hungarian imperial army was as professional as could reasonably be expected. Its high command and its officers drew on Prussian military methods, and most regiments were comparatively well-equipped with modern small arms, machine-guns and artillery.

A historian’s view:
“Most would say that the Austro-Hungarian government decided to act as it did in 1914 because the monarchy’s ruling elite came to believe the monarchy’s interwoven external and internal problems and challenges, especially those in its South Slav regions… had become unmanageable and intolerable, calling for drastic action to change Austria-Hungary’s situation – and that the special nature, interests strongly influenced the choice of a violent rather than a peaceful solution.”
Holger Afflerbach

austria-hungary before world war one

1. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was, in fact, a dual monarchy. It was formed by a merger of the two older kingdoms in 1867.

2. Though Austrians were dominant in the royal family, aristocracy and military command, the empire housed many different ethnic and language groups.

3. Like Germany, Austria-Hungary went through a significant period of industrial growth and modernisation in the second half of the 1800s.

4. The Austro-Hungarian government, which was led by Emperor Franz Joseph, was autocratic and dominated by aristocrats and militarists.

5. Austria-Hungary had a powerful modernised army, though its effectiveness was undermined by internal political and ethnic divisions, such as language barriers between officers and their men.

Title: “Austria-Hungary before World War I”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: August 9, 2017
Date accessed: September 27, 2023
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