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.

The years from 1860 witnessed the advent of constitutionalism in Austria, and with it an assault by liberal politicians on the army budget. They also witnessed the military debacle at Königgrätz, where Bismarck’s Prussians crushed the Austrian army. Yet we should not rush to the conclusion that liberal ideology weakened the Habsburg state. Rather, the creative civic reform movement of those years arguably gave it a new lease of life, and it was the military command, fearful of universal conscription, mistrustful of new techniques, labyrinthine and inflexible, that dug its own grave in 1866.4 Later in the century unrest shifted back into the domestic arena, as national and social grievances threatened mass disorder. The army achieved a “near-miracle” (Deák’s phrase this time) of preserving the Empire with a minimum of force. The author tells us surprisingly little about how often troops were called in, or about their actual modus operandi, though some of it must have been common knowledge (the principles are laid out, for example, in the official Dienstreglement, a manual of regulations).5 What was the relation between regular officers and local police chiefs when the army intervened in street demonstrations and other disorders? The army evidently performed its duties reasonably efficiently, gently, and uncontroversially. Yet it continued to complain of shortages in manpower and material provision. Deák, like previous historians, finds the military budget to have been well below what the state could bear. Why then did the citizens, or at least the political elites, not identify with the army in defense of common interests?

A part of the answer must lie in the continuing influence of liberal views and the rise of socialist and pacifist ones—an Austrian baroness. Bertha von Suttner, is after all revered today as cofounder of the Peace Movement—but only a part, since the governments of other major countries did not find such sentiments a hindrance to military expansion. The chief responsibility for blocking such expansion lay with the Hungarians. The Austro-Hungarian constitutional arrangements of 1867, the so-called Compromise, ironically helped to insulate the army from its critics in Austria proper, by reconstituting it as a joint concern of the Dual Monarchy; but the same constitutional order also exposed the army to the more hostile public mood in the other half of the Empire. There the legacy of 1848–1849, when the yellow-and-black colors of the dynasty had invaded Hungary to destroy its new parliamentary regime and defeat its national forces loyal to Lajos Kossuth, continued to fester. After 1867, with their separate government restored, many Magyars looked again to a separate national army as its essential corollary.

Non-Hungarian historians have, with rare unanimity, condemned that campaign for a separate army as irresponsible posturing, and Deák does not dissent from them. Yet it seems curious that our outstanding expositor of the “lawful revolution” of Kossuth and his associates 6 did not at least contemplate the program that was envisioned by Magyar nationalism. Thus he could have drawn attention to a remarkable contradiction within the Compromise law (brainchild of his namesake—but no relation—Ferenc Deák) which is so important as to merit spelling out here. Whereas Paragraph XI of the compromise declares that “everything pertaining to the unitary leadership, command and inner organization of the whole army, and thus also of the Hungarian army as an integral part of the whole army, is recognized as subject to His Majesty’s disposal,” the very next paragraph insists that

The country [Hungary] reserves to itself…the decision concerning periodic renewal of the Hungarian army and the right of granting recruits, the determination of conditions for such granting of recruits and of their period of service, as also the location and provisioning of the troops.

Did Francis Joseph possess plenary powers in the military sphere, or did he not? The mystery deepens when we consider the equivalent Austrian legislation, to find that it laconically, but pointedly, omits all reference whatsoever to the “Hungarian army.”

It pertains exclusively to the Emperor to ordain matters concerning the management, leadership and inner organization of the whole army.

In practice the only concession that the Hungarians achieved was a small and under-equipped standing reserve force, the Honvéd, set up alongside a similar Austrian organization in 1868. Even that was more than the army chiefs could readily stomach, and by the late 1880s the battle of principle between Vienna and Budapest had been carried into the streets. Maybe Hungarian politicians should have been satisfied with the large advantages that accrued to them in other spheres through the Compromise; maybe an entrenched Magyar establishment ruled the country at the expense of other groups. But on the army question Hungary was surely the provoked party. Both the General Staff and the War Ministry were dominated by Austrian interests. It even took decades for the terminology of Austro-Hungarian dualism to penetrate them; only in 1890 did the celebrated abbreviation “k.u.k.” replace “k.k.” in the army’s official title;7 only in 1910 did the Ministry drop the hated word “Imperial” from its name. Leading soldiers from the house of Habsburg—Archduke Charles, Archduke Albert, and, most notoriously, the heir to the throne, Francis Ferdinand—displayed open prejudice against Magyars. The Hungarian colors and language were accorded no locus standi. “Foreign” generals pulled their rank and advertised their Austrian sentiments on Hungarian soil.

It is important, not to excuse the pettiness, but to understand the depth of resentment that such matters occasioned. It culminated after 1900, when the Hungarian parliament, amid intense oppositional rhetoric, withheld any increase in recruits for a full decade—an extraordinary display of constitutional muscle by any standards, even if it led to protracted political chaos (at one point army commanders in Vienna seriously contemplated invading the country). Were Hungarian leaders not right to claim that the logic of a Dual Monarchy (whatever its pros and cons) demanded a dual army? If their interpretation of the wording of the Compromise had changed by the 1900s—I shall not enter into the intricacies of that—so had the reality. Wouldn’t the ruler in Vienna have been well-advised to embrace fully the formidable warrior traditions of the Magyars? If he thereby aroused the antagonism of other ethnic groups, the regime would at least have delivered itself a powerful weapon against them. This was the argument of nationalists like Lajos Windischgrätz, the Magyarized grandson of the savior of the dynasty in 1848;8 and there is no doubt that the Honvéd proved one of the bravest and most loyal corps during the Great War.

Hungarian resistance to the monarch over supplying conscripts and over accepting emergency legislation in the event of war was eventually broken in 1912. By that time the military leaders themselves had undergone a change; they had adopted a tougher and more aggressive line, in a bid to command the high ground in the Monarchy’s increasingly embattled political landscape. Ultimately, not only society’s view of the army, but the army’s own perceptions, may have proved subversive. For one thing, the army was not entirely impervious to nationalism. Open ethnic tensions seem, indeed, to have been rare, though they could be exacerbated by people in positions of authority, as by the chauvinist lecturer whose class walked out on him when he rated Imre Madách, author of a Faustian drama in Magyar, higher than Goethe.9 But I wonder whether Deák has not misjudged the significance of the issue at a more basic level.

He admits that the officer corps, by contrast with the army as a whole, was dominated by men who thought of themselves, at least linguistically, as German. While he makes a plausible case for disallowing official statistics, even his own figures reveal that fewer than 30 percent were of clearly non-German ethnicity. And once we begin to mistrust the official record, we may wonder about the claims on the part of many officers to have learned non-German vernaculars that might be vital for promotion; the author allows the possibility of connivance here. Was not the corps a school for assimilation, albeit of a rough-and-ready kind? After all, everyone in it had to know German after a fashion (sometimes that was evidently as far as they got in any tongue, like the officer revealed by Deák in a passing footnote to have spoken five languages, “none of them fluently”). It required no linguistic leap, at least, to move from the raw category of “simple Austrian” or “army German” to some form of Teutonism, as with the anti-Semitic General Carl Bardolff, who proudly recalled how he sought a personal audience with the Emperor to avoid his tour of duty with a Slav regiment, or Edmund von Glaise, another prominent Nazi in the making, born in the same little town as Adolf Hitler.

Bardolff and Glaise, both writers of significant memoirs, were two of the most articulate Austrian soldiers of the day. In general, however, the Habsburg regular army (unlike its volunteer reserve) comes across as a pretty benighted institution in its last decades. It was certainly literate in the administrative sense, generating a plethora of forms—transfer of a single company from one officer to another allegedly involved a week’s work for six bureaucrats;10 it issued enormous complicated publications like the secret mobilization instructions, even weighty nonclassified volumes to commemorate its annual maneuvers. Yet it had lost contact with new ideas. “Die Armee diskutirt nicht und raisonnirt nicht” (“The army does not discuss and does not reason”), said the Emperor’s adjutant-general, Count Crenneville, in the 1860s.

That would have been quite untrue fifty or a hundred years earlier, and Deák tells only a half-truth when he draws attention to a “hallowed Austrian military tradition to despise learning.” What of Josef von Sonnenfels, chief ideologue of the Austrian Enlightenment, who began his career in the army, or of Count Josef Kinsky, the patron of scholarship who spent his whole life in it? What of the many soldiers who joined progressive Freemasonic lodges in the 1770s and 1780s? What of Count Stephen Széchenyi, who became a leader of liberal Hungarian opinion? What of the democrats Wenzel Messenhauser and Daniel Fenner leaders of the Viennese revolution of October 1848, both regular officers, even of Archduke Charles? The old dynastic cosmopolitanism, with its important contingent of foreign officers and its space for foreign thoughts, was. we might conclude, dying away, to be replaced by a still largely uncomprehending Austrian patriotism: and this patriotism found it hard to come to terms with constitutional developments in the Monarchy, and could prove vulnerable to the attractions of a more explicitly German tendency. Deák has entitled his study “Beyond Nationalism”; but were not many of his subjects still on the threshold of it?

Most seriously of all, from about 1905 the high command began to assert its prejudices far more belligerently. The Chief of Staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf, openly espoused the notion of a preemptive strike, not just against Austria-Hungary’s Balkan enemy Serbia, but against its nominal ally Italy. His strategic ideas were mostly wrong (as events in August 1914 would demonstrate). His attempts to regenerate the army concentrated on the brute force of the infantry, its weakest suit, at the expense of genuine technical innovation. And he looked only to firmer central controls over a multinational empire whose deeper raison d’être he failed to comprehend.

That was equally true of the heir to the throne, Francis Ferdinand, Inspector-General of the army, a man of extreme intolerance toward political and ethnic pluralism, whose protégés included the likes of Bardolff and Glaise. The Minister of War, Krobatin, pressed most strongly for action against Serbia in the July Crisis of 1914, heedless of its wider consequences. Even the old Emperor seems to have been infected by some of the same prejudices. Whether or not he actually believed by then that the monarchy was doomed, his actions surely suggest a projection of the officer’s honor code onto the international arena. In the end, the dynastic loyalty of the Austrian army asserted a set of values fatally easy to manipulate; the army became a neuralgic point of unaccountability and instability amid the many progressive, creative, and humane achievements of Austro-Hungarian civil society.

To indulge in a dose of devil’s advocacy is not to deny the undoubted merits of the Habsburg officer corps in its last days, merits that have been impressively recaptured by Deák. Its virtues were still much in evidence, as we have seen, to Wickham Steed, who would be a sworn enemy of the Monarchy’s survival within two years of writing his book. They held up remarkably well during the war, too, even if the Austro-Hungarian performance then probably owed more to the grim determination of the common soldiers, whose primitive existence hardly enters into the author’s story, segregated as they were from their superiors (it had become impossible since 1868 to rise from the ranks) and who only came into their own when a full half of the officers were cut down in 1914–1915. Yet virtues can be inseparable from vices: the army reflected the decadence as well as the decency of the old Austrian ideals, and it stood at odds with forces of attempted moral and political renewal.

In Stefan Zweig’s only novel, Ungeduld des Herzens (Beware of Pity in its English version). Lieutenant Hofmiller of the uhlans is friendly, considerate, honorable, but insecure and depressive beneath. After committing a faux pas within the honor code, he finds himself thrown into the society of the crippled daughter of the local Magyar squire—though since this is the Habsburg fm de siècle the squire turns out to be a poor Jewish broker who has made good. She misinterprets his concern for her as love: her doing so is to be taken as a symbol, it seems, for the decency, but ultimately the inadequacy, of the army in its relations with the state. The girl commits suicide on the day of the Sarajevo assassination in 1914; as, shortly after publishing his story on the eve of World War II, did Zweig. Hofmiller becomes a war hero, but only as the result of a reckless flight into heroism from an intolerable reality, again symptomatic, perhaps, of the cast of mind of Austria’s military establishment.

Even Francis Ferdinand’s fateful oneway trip to Sarajevo was a kind of suicide—he knew that his inspection of the troops there would fall on the Serbian national day; and he consciously attended as a military figure, so that his morganatic wife could accompany him without being snubbed. Visitors to Vienna’s War Museum would do well to read Deák’s enthralling account of Francis Ferdinand’s officer corps before they go. Surveying the coach in which the archducal pair were shot, they may then reflect with profit on the public image and private emptiness of the Habsburg army, those crucial ingredients in both the survival and the demise of Habsburg Europe.

This Issue

August 16, 1990