The Austro-Polish Solution: Diplomacy, Politics, and State Building in Wartime Austria-Hungary 1914-1918

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In the first decades after its demise in 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire's collapse assumed a decided air of inevitability in the national histories of the day. Scholarship since the Second World War, reflecting greater skepticism towards the nationalist agendas that superseded the multinational state, has generally adopted a more objective tone regarding the causes of its collapse. Samuel R. Williamson Jr., for example, concluded: "The Habsburg monarchy had problems to be sure in 1912, but its future did not appear more uncertain than at earlier times in its history. Indeed, the Dual Monarchy appeared to have a vitality that would ensure its survival." (1) This modern view seconds that of Baron Istvan Burian von Rajecz, the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister for much of the war, who wrote in his memoirs: "We, the official protectors of the venerable structure [of the state], were convinced of its adaptability to new developments." (2) The later President of the Austrian Republic, Karl Renner, also echoed this sentiment. Describing the Habsburg realm in 1918 in terms that foreshadowed the European Union, he wrote: "Therefore, the smaller nations have every reason to abolish the inequality of their natural existence, their defenselessness and helplessness alongside the greater nations, by joining a supranational association based on law. Such an association cannot eliminate their natural inequality, yet it can guarantee them continued existence and the ability to act on the world stage." (3)

In contrast, Count Ottokar Czernin, Burian's successor as Foreign Minister, concluded gloomily in his memoirs: "We were bound to die." However, even he conceded that options, however limited, existed for the Dual Monarchy: "We were at liberty to choose the manner of our death, and we chose the most terrible." (4) One wonders what constituted "death" for the conservative aristocrat, and whether the choices confronting the Habsburg government between 1914 and 1918 all would have led to the state's dissolution. Even the conclusion of Robert A. Kann, doyen of Habsburg studies for much of the twentieth century, to the effect that for Habsburg policy-makers "there generally was no right course but only a choice between greater and lesser evils," might be deemed unduly pessimistic. (5)

As a multinational state, the Austro-Hungarian Empire certainly faced severe challenges in the last years of its existence. Not least of these was the reality that its foreign policy was driven in large measure by internal, national considerations. As Count Leopold Berchtold, the prewar Minister of Foreign Affairs, concluded in 1914 on the eve of the Sarajevo assassination crisis: "Because of the events of the last years, an intensive relationship has been formed between foreign policy and those national questions which are connected with an irredentist movement supported from abroad, so that a firm conduct of foreign affairs, without the knowledge of internal treatment of these national questions, has become impossible." (6) If the relationship of the various Habsburg nationalities to each other and to the dynasty was complicated, and the foreign policy determined by those realities no less so, the outbreak of the World War offered the opportunity for more radical departures in both areas. With room in certain cases for both national agendas and dynastic loyalty, the multinational state's dissolution was anything but a foregone conclusion in the summer of 1914.

One national group within the Dual Monarchy, the Poles, not only supported the Habsburg war effort, but actively and openly advocated Polish national unification as one of Austria-Hungary's war aims. Unique among the nationalities, they did so with the general consent and support of the Austrian government. This reflected the privileged and loyal position that the Poles occupied in the Habsburg state structure. As an adjunct to the Ausgleich of 1867, the Poles were granted widespread political and cultural autonomy in Galicia. …