The Downfall of the Habsburg Monarchy

Term Paper, 2004
16 Pages, Grade: 1,3

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1. The State of the Habsburg Empire before 1914
1.1. Habsburg and a new Era
1.2. Ethnicity and the Rise of Nationalism
1.3. Hungary and Austria – two different approaches to the ethnic issue
1.4. Conclusion

2. The Creation of New Nation States
2.1. Theory and Political Reality
2.2. Poland and Czechoslovakia – two cases of national state creation on former Habsburg soil
2.3. Conclusion



With the end of World War I in 1918, came the demise of one of the last great empires of Europe – The Habsburg monarchy of Austria-Hungary. Following the collapse of this multi-ethnic empire comprising of Germans, Hungarians, Poles, Czechs, South Slavs, Slovaks, Ruthenians and many other ethnic groups, came a re-drawing of the map of Central Eastern Europe and the creation of the new nation States of Czechoslovakia, Poland and the Kingdom of Serbs and Croats.

Being aware of the haphazard process of the state formation and the events that ultimately led to the outbreak of World War II in 1939, one inevitably asks himself, if the nations under Habsburg rule had not been ‘better of’, had the empire not ceased to exist. Could there have been another path to national liberation within the empire? After all, the re-drawing of European borders not only ‘liberated’ nations, it also left a substantial number of people stranded as minorities in states they did not wish to belong to…

This essay first analyses the state of the Habsburg monarchy before the outbreak of World War I. The first chapter aims at answering the question of if it was possible for the Habsburg monarchy to live on and deal with the numerous problems of transition to modernity and settling the many conflicts among its many minorities.

The second chapter focuses on the process of state creation after 1918 and analyses the implementation of Woodrow Wilson’s idea of national self- determination. Did the Peace Conference achieve its goal of creating stable nation states that managed to integrate their national minorities better than the Habsburg Empire? If not, what were the underlying causes for a failure? A special attention is given to the cases of Poland, which was created out of the shards of three collapsed empires and Czechoslovakia, the state of Czechs and Slovaks that fell apart again, with Slovakia becoming a German protectorate as soon as 1939.

1. The State of the Habsburg Empire before 1914

“[…] the Habsburg Empire came to be viewed with nostalgia by many, as a noble internationalist experiment that somehow failed. In fact, however, no such experiment was ever undertaken. Instead, a series of awkward improvisations and

unsatisfying compromises on the part of an ever more desperate ruling house served to aggravate the frustration of, and hostility among, the subject nationalities.” (Roshwald, 2001, p. 10)

1.1. Habsburg and a new Era

The Habsburg Empire at the turn of the century was one of the three enormous multiethnic empires dominating the region: The Russian, the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian empires. It had been ruled for generations by a single dynasty and expanded through gradual territorial acquisition over hundreds of years.

In the beginning of the 20th century, the Habsburg Monarchy, like the other two empires, was challenged by a drastic economical, political and social change that shook the very foundations of the legitimation of monarchic authority and eventually culminated in World War I.

In the course of technological innovation and industrialization, factories were built throughout the empire and peasants started to move to the cities. Industrialization and urbanization thus created a new social class of factory workers who were increasingly susceptive to political mobilization. An increased literacy rate and the spread of newspapers helped to politicise the population even more. Alongside the creation of the proletariat went the growth of the bourgeois middle class which demanded a bigger share of political participation. Modernization was accompanied by the fact that not all ethnic groups within the empire were profiting from increased production and trade, thus deepening the fissures between the many ethnicities. Also, social upward mobility was limited to those adapting either the German or the Magyar administrational hegemony – and this problem was increasingly voiced by those intellectuals and leaders endorsing the new and fast- spreading ideology of nationalism.

The introduction of electoral politics – the creation of parliamentary rule in addition to the monarch – was one sign of the profound changes the Habsburgs had to cope with. Modernization was an ambivalent matter in the empire: On one hand, the elite sought to promote industrialization, educational advancement and technological development. On the other hand, this very progress led to a weakening of the monarch’s authority and to an increased tension between rulers and subject and the subjects among themselves. In the process of modernization, the educational and administrational systems were sought to be standardized which in turn led to fierce resentment by national minorities seeing their national and cultural heritage threatened.

These examples only show the complexity of the problem, the Habsburg Empire faced at the turn of the century. How was a multiethnic empire based on a single dynasties century-old rule to transform successfully into a modern nation state? And how was the emergence of national movements to be addressed?

1.2. Ethnicity and the Rise of Nationalism

The rapid change in society, economy and political order and thought was accompanied in Austro-Hungary by an increased ethnic awareness by the numerous ethnic groups within the empire. In 1910, the empire’s 51.4 million inhabitants were belonging to a wide range of different nationalities: Germans and Magyars, the dominant ethnic groups within the empire made up some 44% of the population and were faced by substantial minorities such as the Poles (10%), Czechs (12.6%), Ruthenians (8%) and Romanians (6.4%) (Bèrenger, 1990, p.214). Efficiently managing such a multiethnic polity in the transition to modern times would have required the creation of a supra-ethnic national identity which the Habsburg monarchy failed to establish. Since there was no dominant ethnic group within the empire, the only legitimation for the Habsburg’s rule was their dynasty and the national identity could not be based on a dominant nation as in France or Germany. The dynastic principle, in turn, was not well suited to draw the “awakening” national subjects together into one nation state. Throughout the 19th century, the different nations within adopted the idea of nationalism and numerous national committees were founded. The Habsburg’s attempts at centralization and consolidation of their empire in the wake of the birth of nationalism only fuelled those nascent nationalist movements which were inspired by the French revolution and its ideas of national sovereignty.

Nationalists aimed not necessarily at secession from Habsburg rule but at extensive local autonomy. The ‘national awakening’ especially troubled the Habsburg empire, since ethnic strife would lead to a destabilization of the entire political and administrational system and would render it even harder to govern. The Czechs, having a state tradition and Bohemia as a relatively homogeneous territory as well as the Hungarians were endorsing the idea of autonomy and self government over their respective historical territories and the Poles claimed Galicia as their personal administrational realm. In the late 19th century, Habsburg’s strength was increasingly and successfully challenged and while the empire had managed to quell the uprisings of its subjects in 1848, the lost war against Piedmont-Sardinia in 1859 as well as the defeat against Prussia in 1866 left it shaken. This weakness resulted in the Ausgleich with Hungary in 1867 and in the creation of a constitutional dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary. Hungary’s success again posed the question why Bohemia and Moravia, Galicia or the South Slavs should not be granted equal treatment.

Another aspect of the ethnic issue was the fact that property was unevenly distributed and only certain groups could afford to change their means of production and adapt to the changing economical system. Thus, even the change in society, the growing of a middle class and a politically conscious working class took on a form of ethnic conflict. The Polish and Magyar landowners could afford the development of economies of scale and left Slovak and Ukrainian peasants socially disadvantaged. But even those profiting from modernization became increasingly dissatisfied with their lot. The Czechs, developing at a fast pace and having the educational background developed a strong self-confidence and began challenging the Habsburg dominance in Bohemia as a result of their growing economical strength.

1.3. Hungary and Austria – two different approaches to the ethnic issue

As an irony of history, any political freedom gained from the Habsburg rule throughout the 19th and beginning 20th century was utilized only to deepen the ethnic tensions among the subjects. While Habsburg’s attempts at centralization failed due to the lack of a dominant ‘state people’ and the subsequent resentment by any affected ethnic group, its policy of softening up the political process and including the minorities also missed the mark and fuelled resentments among the empire’s subjects.

The parties in the Reichsrat, after universal manhood suffrage was established in Austria in 1907, were all based on ethnic and regional loyalties. There was a Czech Club causing fierce dispute with the German parties by demanding an equal autonomous status for Bohemia as Hungary enjoyed – with the local Germans violently opposing being put under Czech rule.

16 of 16 pages


The Downfall of the Habsburg Monarchy
Corvinus University Budapest
Post-Communist Europe and the Ethnic Issue
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This paper focuses on the question if the end of World War I and the downfall of the Habsburg Monarchy was a blessing or a curse for the region of Central Europe. The strongest focus lies on Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland. Feedback is welcome!
Downfall, Habsburg, Monarchy, Post-Communist, Europe, Ethnic, Issue
Quote paper
Konrad von Derschau (Author), 2004, The Downfall of the Habsburg Monarchy, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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