Part 1: End of WWI & of Austria-Hungary: But the Tragedy Continues
Part 3: Austria-Hungary's Nations: From Resentment to Reconciliation?
Perhaps the death-date for Austria-Hungary should be March 23-24, when Karl departed by train for Switzerland. But even afterward, he made two ill-fated attempts to regain power in Hungary. After the second, the dominant powers of Western Europe exiled him to the Portuguese island of Madeira, hundreds of miles from land, where he couldn’t cause any more “trouble.”
But that post-war history is full of other troubles, one that most modern accounts, attempting to justify the new Wilsonian order of “nation-states” like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, omit. It was a tumultuous time. Two days before Karl’s departure, a Hungarian Soviet Republic was declared. It lasted only until July. In Czechoslovakia, professors—mostly German- and Hungarian-speakers—had lost university jobs for refusing to pledge allegiance to the new government. Ethnic Hungarian railway workers in Slovakia went on strike in February 1919 to protest these and other measures. Later that month, they were joined by ethnic Germans protesting in Bratislava. Things got out of control and a military unit fired on the crowd, killing seven and wounding twenty-three.
While typical twentieth-century narratives celebrate the creation of the new European states, they rarely mention incidents like the Polish-Czechoslovak War of 1919, a dispute over the border between those countries. Poland, of course, had been partitioned in the late eighteenth century among Austria, Prussia, and Russia, a shameful event which caused the Polish Commonwealth to disappear from the map. One can only sympathize with the desire of the Polish people to reconstitute a state which had existed for centuries, and which, with its Sejm, or Parliament, and its electoral monarchy, was one of the most progressive lands in Europe in the Renaissance and later.
But the precedent for a Czechoslovak state lay on much shakier ground. There had been a “Great Moravian Empire” in the ninth century, but “empire” is a dubious term. It encompassed only parts of today’s Czech and Slovak Republics, but it played a key role in the development of Slavdom when Prince Rastislav invited two monks from Byzantium to come as missionaries and develop a Slavic liturgical and biblical language. That was in 863. But the conquest of the Central Danube Basin by the Magyar tribes in 896 brought the principality to ruin and drove a wedge between West Slavs (Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, and smaller groups) and their South Slavic cousins such as Croats and Serbs. Germans also helped put an end to the Slavic state north of the Danube.
Czechs and Slovaks had looked back with longing at Great Moravia for several centuries, exaggerating its importance. As their national aspirations gained momentum in the nineteenth century, this re-writing of history became part of their narrative, one that had to be strongly cultivated in the new Czechoslovak state. Even if skeptical about some of this narrative, one has to be sympathetic to the fact that Hungarian and German domination really did prevent several Slavic peoples from refining their literature and culture. And these Germans and Magyars subsequently looked down on Slavs and somehow less “civilized.”
So Slavic resentment is understandable. But is it exaggerated?
It’s useful to consider the pros and cons of two views.
According to one, the old Habsburg Monarchy was the “cage of nations”—of Czechs, Serbs, Romanians, and others yearning to establish nation-states, which theoretically meant that everyone within the borders spoke the same language. It was a concept that had been growing at least since the French Revolution, and the old “feudal order” stood in the way of their creation.
But the reality is that much of the territory was so mixed there was no way to draw borders which would have nothing but Czechs on one side, nothing but Germans on the other, or that would perfectly separate Slovaks from Magyars. The most defendable borders the Czechs could have had were the Sudeten and other mountain ranges to the north, northwest, and southwest. But those areas were heavily populated by German-speakers, so these people had to be included in the new state.
A more favorable view of the old order is that it transcended nationality by providing a higher loyalty, to the idea of supranational state under a monarch. A thoroughly romanticized view would have it that everyone “lived in peace and harmony” in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, under the benign sway of Maria Theresa or Franz Joseph.
The reality is that the nations of the empire did not get along that well – especially since some of them, particularly the German-Austrians and Hungarians, had been privileged in ways that kept them on top socially, financially, and politically. Germans, for instance, dominated the Austro-Hungarian army corps all out of proportion to their numbers in the population, followed by ethnic Magyars.
This three-part series will finish next Monday with "From Resentment to Reconciliation?"