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Unwarlike Warriors

Beyond Nationalism: A Social and Political History of the Habsburg Officer Corps, 1848–1918

by István Deák
Oxford University Press, 302 pp., $39.95

Among the fighting forces of the great powers in old Europe, the Austrian army had two distinguishing qualities: the magnificence of its uniforms and the comprehensiveness of its defeats. Today’s War Museum in Vienna is housed in the huge neo-Byzantine Arsenal building, itself a stunning piece of military ostentation. In it the visitor can admire the officers’ parade dress, especially that of the cavalrymen: cuirassiers and dragoons, hussars, uhlans, and the rest. Some jackets are pure white, some have dominant reds and blues, some display intricate frogging or fur edging; most are capped by elaborate busbies or shakos. For anyone familiar with Central European culture the place is redolent with association. We are reminded of the insistent rhythms of marches by the Strauss family, or by regimental bandmasters like Ziehrer or Fucík; of military themes transformed, in their different ways, by Mahler and by Lehár (himself a bandmaster in his youth). We think of an equally colorful literary pageant of soldiers, above all in the novels of Joseph Roth, but also in Schnitzler and Musil, in Doderer, and in Hašek’s stories of the Good Soldier Svejk.

Most resplendent of all were the imperial bodyguards; a painting by Ludwig Koch, depicting a banquet at Schönbrunn Palace in the presence of Francis Joseph to celebrate 150 years of the Arcièren Body Guard, identifies by facial expression each member of that exclusive troop. It is dated December 29, 1913. That was already very near the end. For all its tradition and esprit de corps, the Austrian army continually lost out to more formidable or more ruthless enemies—the Turks of Sultan Süleyman, the Prussians of Frederick the Great and later Bismarck, the French of Napoleon I and Napoleon III—at least until bailed out by other powers which moved to restore the concert of Europe. Few of the generals portrayed in the Museum in heroic attitudes and larger than life had won a major offensive engagement on their own account against a serious external foe. The Great War which began in 1914 was to call for the most desperate defense of all, and to bring no such remission at the end.

The aim of István Deák’s fine book is to establish a complimentary relationship between the uniforms and the defeats. He stresses the effectiveness of the army’s peacetime panache; he describes it as “maintaining the empire merely by its presence.” He sees it as the foremost repository of loyalty to a state which it had held together through the revolutionary months of 1848-1849, indeed substantially recreated by the initative of its commanders, Field Marshal Radetzky, General Jellacic, and Field Marshal Windischgrätz. Through the incomparably long reign of Francis Joseph, whom the army helped to power at that time, the military machine upheld public order, mainly—Deák argues—by means of its example and as an object of respect.

Yet the state failed to requite this service. The author presents the paradox of a “militarist” empire which was essentially “unwarlike”: an army widely admired, but not supported as a fighting force. Chronic underfunding crippled the troops’ international effectiveness—though it did not affect the parade uniforms, since these had always to be paid for out of the men’s own pockets. Thus the officers could still put on a brave face in 1914, like Prince Clary, who recounts how he rode off to battle in his gala costume of scarlet trousers and sky-blue uhlan tunic for want of any regulation dress.1 But four years later their world disintegrated along with the monarchy which they had served too well.

Deák, an American historian of Hungarian origin, acknowledges a personal involvement in this story: an ancestor of his fought in 1848–1849; a photograph in the book shows his father as an artillery officer on the eastern front in 1914; in his preface he remembers with some poignancy the old soldiers he encountered on the streets of Budapest during the Thirties. But the purpose of the book is neither evocative nor anecdotal. On the contrary, it represents a pioneering study of the social history of a military elite. The subject is much neglected. Deák rightly observes that a certain intellectual distaste has hindered academic reflection on the social life of armies as a whole—the aimlessness of their peacetime role being found perhaps still more repugnant than the destructiveness of their wartime one—while the vogue for “history from below” has lately directed attention toward the soldiers rather than their officers. He is thus the first to exploit a magnificent series of documents housed in Vienna’s War Archives, the building to which, appropriately enough, the Austrian General Staff retreated when the Monarchy collapsed (General Glaise, of whom more later, became its director). To these voluminous official files Deák adds the telling testimony of numerous memoirists. In particular, he pursues the careers of two cohorts, through controlled samples of those who held the rank of lieutenant in 1870 and 1900 respectively.

The nineteenth-century Austrian officer corps was a family network. Aristocrats remained entrenched in some regiments, but unlike their Prussian counterparts they held no exclusive preserves—except for the tiny groups of imperial bodyguards—and their numbers and influence were in decline. Most nobles in the army were recent creations, advancing through the service and sometimes assuming facetious new names, as if to épater la noblesse. The author cites a few of these: he could have added my own favorite, “Donner von Blitzbergen”; even the Imperial War Minister at the turn of the century rejoiced in the name of “von Krieghammer.” By 1900 a regular commission formed the channel by which more and more low-born recruits could improve themselves, while membership in the reserve officer corps confirmed the status of many members of the professional and administrative class.

Deák follows his charges through their education, tough and ascetic, either at the prestigious academies (the first of them founded in the seventeenth century by another arriviste with a sense of humor, Baron Chaos) or at the proliferating cadet schools, to life in a regiment which might or might well not be the one of their choice. There was the chance of glamour, with guaranteed entry to court balls and theaters for those stationed in the capital, but also the greater likelihood of a shabby, torpid existence to be eked out in some dead-end Galician or Transylvanian garrison town. At least periodic postings assured some variety, while the talented could pass through the new Kriegsschule into the expanding General Staff.

The society in which officers moved was overwhelmingly male. Few were allowed to take a wife, or could afford it, in view of the large sums they had to put up as a guarantee of their intentions (not for nothing, perhaps, does the author discuss marriage in a chapter on crime, which also features the famous homosexual spy, Colonel Redl). Promotion tended to be slow, and became impossible after a certain age; those passed over had to resign in the end, presumably feigning disability in order to qualify for a pension. The only real compensation for poor pay and conditions—indeed their essential corollary, argues Deák in a very perceptive section on military ethics—was the honor of the service, which demanded satisfaction against civilian insult, and gave the right to challenge fellow officers or other gentlemen to a duel.

A further feature of the corps, however, fascinates István Deák most of all: its internationalism. In this empire of more than a dozen nationalities, no questions were asked (in either the official or the unofficial sense) about the ethnic origin of officers. The only attention to it in training was requirement for them to learn the language(s) of their regiment, which meant any tongue spoken by at least 20 percent of the men. Loyalty was enjoined in this bilingual or multilingual service to the simple verities of God, Emperor, and an unspecified Fatherland; and fellowship cemented by the distinctive Austrian “Du,” the intimate mode of address which all officers shared (their German counterparts, by contrast, used the formal “Sie,” a source of considerable friction during the war). Official religious discrimination seems likewise to have been almost unknown. As a most striking consequence of that, Jews came to take a measurable (if small) number of regular commissions and to form a much larger proportion—as high as 20 percent—of the reserve and some auxiliary sections.

Deák’s largely favorable verdict on the Habsburg officer echoes that of a leading contemporary observer from the English-speaking world.

He is held to be the superior of the average German officer. He is more intelligent, more readily adaptable to circumstances, in closer touch with his men, less given to dissipation and remarkably free from arrogance. He is a good fellow and a lovable being…. The maintenance of unitary sentiment and of efficient organization in this maze of languages and races is a dynastic and military miracle.2

What for Henry Wickham Steed in 1913 could be no more than a rough impression has at last been precisely delineated by Deák, with numerous statistical tables, and opened up for comparison with the record of other armed forces.

If one function of Deák’s work consists in charting such new paths for understanding Central European history, the second lies in reanimating a perennial debate about the fate of the Habsburg Monarchy. Here the author’s claims call for more critical appraisal. He asserts that the army “assured the survival” of that cumbrous realm, known loosely as “Austria” or, from 1867, when the traditional dualism of its two main components was reasserted and redefined, as “Austria-Hungary.” By 1914, we are told, its other historic props, even the conservative aristocracy, bureaucracy, and clergy, had forsaken the supranational, dynastic idea, leaving only the cohesiveness of the military command, whose inherited ethos fortuitously coincided with the aging Francis Joseph’s lack of vision. At the same time, Deák ventures an ex cathedra vindication of the entity that the soldiers were defending, of whose values they had become the last receptacle. He holds up the “Habsburg experiment” as a “positive lesson” to the disoriented Central Europe of today.

Something seems amiss with this proposition. A state unloved by virtually all but its troops hardly deserves to subsist. What about alternative versions of an “Austrian” or “Austro-Hungarian” identity before 1918? What did society think of its officer corps? The revolutionary year of 1848 was one thing; civil disturbance persuaded many to approve the officer corps’ methods, out of patriotism, or simply from fear of anarchy or of domination by a rival faction, though even then the willingness of political leaders to rally to Habsburg authority appears at least as significant as the use of force.3 But the 1850s were another. The army carried on through that decade as the embodiment of an authoritarian regime that proved unable to consolidate itself, and left a lasting legacy of bitterness. Its symbol is the Arsenal, built between 1849 and 1856, a vast edifice of intimidation nearly half a mile square on the then edge of Vienna. It was the comparatively well-funded army of an insolvent state that went down to defeat at the hands of the French and Sardinians at Magenta and Solferino in 1859.

  1. 1

    Alfons Clary, A European Past (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978), p. 103.

  2. 2

    Henry Wickham Steed, The Hapsburg Monarchy (4th edition, London: Constable, 1919), pp. 61, 65.

  3. 3

    The war in Hungary was won only with Russian help. While asserting that the Habsburg army emerged “powerful and proud” from its testing in 1848–1849, Deák also hedges his bets by admitting that the request for Russian intervention was a great mistake which “undermined forever its reputation.”

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