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…

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