How the Army Built the Habsburg Empire

Reseña de libro
The National Interest, Vol.138 (July-August 2015)
William Anthony Hay, profesor de historia y director del Instituto de Humanidades (Mississippi State University)
Richard Bassett: For God and Kaiser: The Imperial Austrian Army, 1619–1918 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015)


The reputation of the Austrian imperial army, unlike its Prussian counterpart, does not command much historical respect. In Joseph Roth’s great 1932 novel Radetzky March, which chronicles the rise and fall of the Trotta family, the decay of the Habsburgs is intimately linked with the collapse of the army. During the Battle of Solferino in 1859, Lieutenant Trotta, a Slovenian subject, saves the emperor’s life. He is promptly ennobled for his heroic act. Every Austrian schoolboy is taught to revere him. But by the third generation, the family has gone to pot. The grandson, a cavalry officer, exemplifies none of the martial values of his forebears. Instead, the depressive young gentleman, stationed on the border with Ukraine, spends his time drinking, gambling and womanizing.

In his superb new book, For God and Kaiser, Richard Bassett examines the central role the imperial army played in Austria. While this fighting force was undeniably in dire straits by 1914, he argues that it has gotten something of a bum rap. For several centuries, it displayed a remarkable capacity to adapt and innovate. Bassett believes that the army expressed the idea that dynastic, cultural and economic relations were more important than national identity. Indeed, the army became a remarkably successful tool for state formation and provided cohesion even as nationalism became a greater force. Hence the last emperor, Charles I, remarked in 1918 that “all the peoples of the monarchy have found a common home in the army.”

Bassett quite rightly opens with the crisis in 1619 that almost toppled the Habsburgs from power. Ferdinand II, who had inherited the Austrian branch of the Habsburg lands Charles V divided in 1556, faced a revolt by Protestant nobles in the Holy Roman Empire. The Bohemian magnates confronted Ferdinand, only to retreat when the arrival of loyal cavalry prevented them from compelling the emperor’s submission to their demands. The incident forged a bond of mutual support between the Habsburgs and their army. The army existed first and foremost to secure the dynasty. Duty shaped what became a Habsburg way of war that emphasized resilience over risk and used strategic depth to recover from initial defeat. No commander would risk the destruction of his army, lest such defeat endanger the dynasty. Instead, defensive tactics or strategies served offensive ends. War always remained at the service of politics to reinforce diplomacy.

Besides saving Ferdinand, the incident marked a notable turn in the struggle between Protestants and Catholics in Central Europe. As the Reformation divided Europe, Ferdinand preferred seeing his lands burnt to a cinder to tolerating Protestantism in his domains. Bohemia—now the Czech Republic—was determined to resist. Other territories stood on the brink of open rebellion. Ferdinand had few troops that he controlled directly. Catholic princes cared little more for his authority than their Protestant counterparts did. Necessity compelled him to find commanders willing to raise an army from private funds. Their victories provided the means to make the new system work even as Ferdinand’s treasury ran empty.

The Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) began when rebels in Prague elected the Protestant Frederick as king of Bohemia. It quickly became a wider conflict, but an imperial victory over Protestant forces at the famous Battle of White Mountain regained Bohemia for the Habsburgs. Captured land enabled Ferdinand’s commander Albrecht von Wallenstein to forge an army that resembled the condottieri of the early Italian Renaissance. Wallenstein’s ambitions to establish a realm of his own ended in his assassination, but the force he built pledged its loyalty to the Habsburgs. Like Catholic religious orders promoting the Counter-Reformation, it had a distinct international flair. The army also developed innovative tactics and an effective system of finance and supply. A service nobility loyal to the Habsburg dynasty emerged among officers who took lands and titles. The infrastructure supporting the army became the foundation of an Austrian state distinct from the Holy Roman Empire.

Exhaustion on both sides ended the war. Austria still faced the long-term threat of war on multiple fronts. France remained a rival able to intervene in Italy and Germany, while the Ottoman Empire posed a danger from the southeast. Besides requiring forces sufficient to cover multiple fronts, the Austrian army needed the tactical skills to fight both European and Turkish opponents in very different environments. The siege of Vienna in 1683 presented a formidable test. Bassett highlights the drama and personalities, but also shows the adaptability of Austrian forces in a highly fluid situation. The relief of Vienna by Poland’s King John Sobieski brought a counteroffensive that broke Ottoman military power.

Bassett deftly describes how Austria’s army differed from its European counterparts. Besides the international flavor, it included many officers who had risen through the ranks. In Austria, the “best families” produced a large share of officers, but merit determined advancement. Unlike in Prussia, Austrian officers never formed a separate caste. Standardizing an expanded professional army, including its uniforms, produced the image of soldiers in white coats with different colored facings. The choice of a light gray that faded to white reflected financial considerations that hinted at a larger issue—keeping up standards in peacetime cost more than Habsburg finances could manage, a recurring problem.


Diplomatic efforts by Charles VI to transfer the Habsburg inheritance to his daughter Maria Theresa, the only direct heir, showed the weakness of treaties absent force to back them up. While Bassett’s description of Maria Theresa as eighteenth-century Europe’s most effective monarch perhaps oversteps the mark, he draws a useful contrast between her and her Prussian rival Frederick II. Prussia had formed a distinctive political culture and institutions to compensate for its strategic vulnerability and limited manpower and resources. The result meant that, as Count Mirabeau is said to have noted, where most countries had an army, in Prussia the army had a country. While the Prussian army had its own weaknesses, not least a limited recruiting pool, it allowed Frederick to seize Silesia in a campaign that opened the War of Austrian Succession (1740–1748).

Strategic depth and manpower enabled Austria to recover from near destruction. Other powers joined Frederick in a bid to partition the Habsburg lands. Let down by allies and advisers alike, Maria Theresa initiated wartime reforms that rescued her rule. Frederick likened fighting her to “dying a thousand times every day.” Ending the war brought space for sweeping changes that gave the Habsburgs the best artillery in Europe, along with improved cavalry tactics and officer training. Care taken for soldiers reinforced their loyalty. The army became more cosmopolitan, too, as non-Catholics entered the officer corps and ranks. Regulations made religion something to live by and not speak about, downplaying a sectarianism other militaries retained through the nineteenth century. When the struggle resumed with the Seven Years’ War (1754–1763), Frederick soon observed, “These are no longer the old Austrians.”

Austria could adapt to meet challenges no less than Prussia. Emphasis on Prussian efficiency overshadows Maria Theresa’s real accomplishments. Her realm had resources and depth to recover from defeats that left Prussia reeling, a pattern seen in later wars against Napoleonic France. Bassett cogently describes a strategic culture among Austrian commanders who used defensive tactics and strategies to leverage their advantages by wearing down opponents. The advantages of securing a decisive encounter rarely matched the risk of losing an army, even if new recruits could be found. Balancing forces against threats to the dynasty bred caution among rulers and commanders.

Prussia’s survival against steep odds burnished Frederick’s reputation. It also drew attention away from the fact that Austria survived, recovered and emerged stronger than before. Joseph II introduced a new series of reforms upon succeeding Maria Theresa, but showed less judgment and appreciation of human nature. Rational enlightenment—a commitment to abstract reasoning over experience—clashed with military tradition. It also sparked political conflicts, including a revolt of the Austrian Netherlands. Joseph forced Prussia to back down without a fight in the short War of Bavarian Succession (1778–1779), but then overstretched the army in campaigning against Turkey along a geographically wider front than ever before. He bequeathed the army that carried Austria through the wars unleashed by revolutionary France.

Even as early as the 1770s, France conceived of a new approach to war, in which citizen armies fired by patriotism would live off the land for greater mobility. Napoleon Bonaparte was only the most prominent soldier to realize the potential these ideas offered. The new way of revolutionary war surprised the coalition against France, including Austria, with its quicker pace and different assumptions. Austria won 168 of the 264 engagements it fought against revolutionary France, Bassett tells us, but those victories did not prevent a stalemate that worked against its vulnerabilities. Ceding the Austrian Netherlands and annexing Venice through the Peace of Campo Formio in 1797 gave the Habsburg monarchy a more defensible position. What seemed to represent defeat by Napoleon ended up consolidating Austrian power in Central Europe.

Archduke Charles, brother to Emperor Francis, proved the most successful Habsburg general and an able military administrator. Had Charles faced anyone besides Napoleon, Bassett insists, the archduke would have been recognized as a great commander of the age. Charles beat successive French generals before scoring a hard-fought victory over Napoleon himself at Aspern-Essling, only then losing with a smaller force at Wagram. Just as importantly, Charles kept his army from destruction to fight another day. Though compelled to submit, Austria avoided a crushing defeat like that which had briefly ended Prussia’s standing as a great power. Submission to Napoleon came with the political decision against fighting a war of attrition that might end the dynasty.

Defeat in 1809 nevertheless subordinated Austria to France. Francis had become emperor of Austria after the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 following Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz. Renewing the war had been a gamble. Metternich, Francis’s chief minister, played a difficult hand well to expand Austria’s options and preserve its military capacity as Napoleon launched his own gamble by invading Russia. A new coalition offered the chance to enact reforms. Karl Philipp von Schwarzenberg, who replaced Charles in command, chose subordinates well. One of them, Count Joseph Radetzky, devised the strategic plans for allied forces to avoid confronting Napoleon and instead wear down his less capable subordinates by weight of numbers. It epitomized the Habsburg way of using defensive means for an offensive aim. Despite fighting some of his most inspired campaigns in 1813–1814, Napoleon failed to avoid defeat.


Victory over Napoleon marked the apex of Habsburg military power. Later campaigns and surviving the revolutions of 1848 hid the scope of a gradual decay. What changed? Bassett notes that Metternich reversed many of Charles’s reforms, particularly those broadening service obligations to include artisans and the professional classes. Recruitment then fell largely on those unable to secure exemptions and other men community leaders considered troublemakers. An unspoken rule that regiments not be stationed long in communities where they recruited kept soldiers from sympathizing with civilian neighbors. It also meant complicated deployments. Austria kept a large peacetime force despite the expense this required, which was made harder to bear by lingering debts from the long wars with France. Finance imposed a check on training, equipment and general effectiveness.

Industrialization brought Prussia wealth and manufacturing capacity on a scale that Austria simply did not share. Territory and manpower aside, the economic base on which the Habsburgs could draw did not match those of its main French and Prussian rivals. Leadership played its part in the decay as well. Monarchy depends heavily upon the quality and judgment of rulers elevated by birth. Maria Theresa and her son Leopold, who tackled the mess Joseph II left behind with his ambitious reforms, showed the upside. Francis had the perseverance and courage to rule throughout the hard years of the struggle with Napoleon. He gave ministers and soldiers the backing needed to do their job. But Francis’s mentally incapable successor, Ferdinand, left a void at the apex of the regime, both in governance and as an effective figurehead. State institutions lacked either direction or support beginning in 1835. Policy drifted. When revolution broke out in 1848, generals and their troops who remained loyal to the Habsburgs sought orders in vain.

Political failure—notably the inability to either accommodate or repress movements that challenged the established order—sparked the revolutions of 1848. The old narrative of a liberal awakening overstates political engagement beyond elites, students and town dwellers. It also downplays conflicts along nationalist lines among groups within the empire. By allowing events to escalate, authorities lost control of the situation—and control over Vienna, Prague and much of the realm. As Prince Alfred von Windisch-Grätz, who took the lead in restoring order, commented, “We need a Kaiser we can show the soldiers.” His observation reflected the bond uniting army and dynasty along with basic political reality. Archduke Franz Josef soon replaced the hapless Ferdinand as emperor.

The army remained true to the Habsburgs in 1848, snuffing out revolution after the initially chaotic political response. Its task involved defeating a foreign challenge in Italy from Piedmont as well as uprisings across the empire. Radetzky, the veteran planner of campaigns against Napoleon, prepared the counteroffensive in Italy that routed the Piedmontese army before mopping up the rebellion. The march composed in Radetzky’s honor—and still played to close the annual New Year’s concert in Vienna—became known as the Marseillaise of reaction. Bassett argues, however, that Radetzky, along with many other Habsburg officers, sympathized with reform more than his reputation suggests.

Defeating revolution in 1849 underlined the bond sealed between the army and the Habsburgs in 1619. It did not provide the resilience to resist challenges in Italy and Germany. Bassett sees hubris and complacency behind the success. The Austro-Prussian War in 1866 was a closer fight than its political outcome suggests in retrospect. Defeated at Königgrätz, the Austrian army under Ludwig Benedek (who had risen through the officer corps from humble origins) still denied Prussia the kind of crushing victory it later enjoyed over France. Rather than fighting on, Austria negotiated the Peace of Prague, which recognized a Prussian sphere of influence over the German states.

The defeat brought the Ausgleich—a dual monarchy split between Austria and Hungary—along with military reforms. New uniforms marked a symbolic change that abandoned the customary white. Extending conscription spread recruitment to areas where the army had not previously raised troops. The reforms did not change the army’s ethos or collective identity. But they also didn’t improve its effectiveness or address important weaknesses. What Bassett calls long-standing failings in command and control and staff planning remained. “A lack of imagination,” he writes, “pervaded the highest levels of command.” Strengths in artillery and mountain troops did not compensate for other, larger deficiencies. Scandal over Colonel Alfred Redl’s exposure as a Russian spy—and the way the army command bungled it—symbolized a broader pattern of ineptitude. It also gave Russia confidence it could defeat Austria. Assumptions drove actions on all sides of the July Crisis in 1914. The Habsburg army command bears particular responsibility for promoting a war it was not prepared to fight. Rather than a punitive local war against Serbia to strengthen the dynasty, it helped unleash a general European conflict. The volatile army chief of staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf drafted a telegraph never sent to his German counterpart that complained, “We asked for our back to be guarded while we liquidated Serbia, and you have brought upon us the Weltkrieg.”


World War I proved to be the empire’s downfall. Recent books by Max Hastings and Geoffrey Wawro demonstrate how badly its army performed during the campaigns of 1914. All belligerents faced a steep learning curve in adapting to a conflict where tactics, supply and military doctrine had not caught up with technology that enhanced firepower. But the results were particularly devastating for Austria. The Habsburg army proportionally suffered the highest casualty rate among belligerents. Early campaigns killed a high percentage of its professional officer corps. Reserve officers lacked experience or much training. As Erich von Falkenhayn observed, the first twelve months of war reduced Austria-Hungary to a second-rate power.

Subordinated to German strategic priorities, the Austrian army recovered to a degree. German planning and support made possible a sweeping victory at Caporetto that almost drove Italy out of the war. Bassett credits alpine divisions and other crack troops for upholding Habsburg military traditions. Armies on the Italian front held their own and remained more effective than elsewhere. The monarchy itself withstood the strains of war—amplified by urban food shortages—until 1918. Such resilience indicates more strength and cohesion than critical historians allowed. Bassett’s sympathies here fit the evidence better than old stories of a monarchy doomed.

Just as Anatolia provided the core of a Turkish state that could survive losing other Ottoman territories, the German-speaking Habsburg lands might have become a rump Habsburg state. Defeating the Central powers, one British military assessment suggested in 1917, could bring Catholic regions in Germany to shift their loyalty to the Habsburgs from the discredited Prussian Hohenzollerns. Emperor Charles, who succeeded Franz Josef in 1916, had loyal troops to keep order even in late 1918. The Austrian army only collapsed when the monarchy ceased to be a single state. General Svetozar Boroević offered Charles the eighty thousand men he commanded to keep order in Vienna and negotiate from a stronger position. Charles, however, declined to deploy them against his own subjects. The army could not act without its sovereign, and the monarchy collapsed.

If success, rather than force, truly provides the ultimate argument of kings, dissolution appears to settle the case against the Habsburgs. A closer view suggests that they had some things right and other things wrong, and did remarkably well facing difficult challenges. Bassett argues that much of what the Habsburgs and their army got right proved beyond the reach of the regimes that replaced them or the other European monarchies. The political vacuum left by the Habsburg collapse encouraged competition between Germany and Russia, laying the groundwork for another world war. Only exhaustion and decades of the Cold War brought stability. The problem of organizing small countries of different nationalities so they can enjoy a secure peace remains. Always the landlords of Europe, rather than omnipotent rulers, the Habsburgs served their tenants well.

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