Novi Sad, Serbia

In the context of World War I the marginalization of the Serbian and thereby of the larger Balkan dimension already began during the July crisis itself. Serbia and its actions occupied a subordinate place. Furthermore the fact that Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia emerged as one of the victor states of the war seemed implicitly to vindicate the act of the murder of the Austro-Hungarian crown prince and his wife on 28 June 2014. In an era when the national idea was still full of promise, there was sympathy with south Slav nationalism and little affection for the ponderous multinational commonwealth of the Habsburg Empire. But our moral compass has shifted by now. The Yugoslav wars of the 1990s have reminded us of the lethality of Balkan nationalism. Since Srebrenica and the siege of Sarajevo, it has become harder to think of Serbia as the mere object or victim of great power politics and easier to conceive of Serbian nationalism as a historical force in its own right. From the perspective of today’s European Union we are inclined to look more sympathetically on the vanished imperial patchwork of Habsburg Austro-Hungary. Putting Sarajevo and the Balkans back at the centre of the outbreak of World War I does not mean demonizing the Balkans or their politicians. We need to understand the July crisis of 1914 as a complex event. Far from being inevitable this war was in fact inconceivable for most Europeans of the time, at least until it actually happened. So the conflict was not the consequence of a long-run deterioration, but of short-term shocks with the Balkans at the centre.

The Serbian monarchy was an embattled institution due to the special circumstances of two rival dynasties based on traditional clans, the Obrenovic and the Karadjordjevic, an exposed location between the Ottoman and the Austrian empires, a markedly undeferential political culture dominated by peasant smallholders. Very few Serbian regents on the throne died of natural causes. Among the powerful mercantile and banking families, especially those involved in the export of livestock and food, there were many who saw the pro-Vienna bias of the Obrenovic’s foreign policy as locking the Serbian economy into an Austrian monopoly and depriving Serbia’s capitalists of access to world markets. At the epicenter of the deepening opposition to the crown was the Serbian army. By the turn of the 20th century, the army was one of the most dynamic institutions in Serbian society. In a still largely rural and underperforming economy, an officer commission was a privileged route to status and influence. A gifted young lieutenant Dragutin Dimitrijevic, later known as “Apis”, was appointed General Staff and played an important role in the events of 1914. The scene of all his intrigues was the smoke-filled, men-only world of Belgrade coffee-houses. He planned to kill the Serbian royal couple in 1903. The most striking feature of this brutal murder was the extraordinary calmness with which the execution of such an atrocious crime was accepted. With King Petar the Karadjordjevic came to power. He was recalled from his Swiss exile and intended to rule as a truly constitutional king of Serbia. The press was at last free of censorship. But the coup of 1903 created new problems which would weigh heavily on the events of 1914. Above all, the conspirational network that had murdered the royal family did not melt away, but remained an important force in Serbian politics and public life. The new regime depended for its existence on the bloody work of the conspirators and they were afraid of what the network might be capable of. The regicide network was especially influential at court. The question of the relationship between army and civilian authorities remained unresolved despite external pressure on the new government to detach itself from the network. The lion’s share of the responsibility rests with Nikola Pasic, the leader of the Radical Party, who was active in Serbian politics for 40 years and the dominant statesman after the regicide. The key to the enduring electoral success of the party was the small-holding peasantry that made up the bulk of the country’s population. The Radicals embraced a variety of populism that linked them to pan-Slavist groups in Russia. They were suspicious of a professional army and considered a peasant militia as the best and most natural form of armed organization. After a botched attempt at the King Father’s life, Pasic stood to be executed on suspicion of complicity. Ironically, his life was saved by the urgent intervention of the Austro-Hungarian government. With a new change of regime Pasic grew into the role of father of his nation. He was disliked by the Belgrade intellectual elite, but he enjoyed immense pre-eminence among the peasantry. Pasic was a poor speaker, but an excellent communicator to the peasants who formed the overwhelming majority of the Serbian electorate. He acquired habits of excessive caution, secrecy and obliqueness and established a durable relationship with the army and the regicide network within it. Especially many young officers saw in the conspirators the incarnation of Serbian national will. Apis held a position of uncontested dominance within the network. He recruited a core of ultra-nationalist officers prepared to support the struggle for the union of all Serbs by any available means.

The idea of a “unification of all Serbs” was underpinned by a mental image of Serbia. The historical template for this expansive vision of Serbian statehood was the medieval empire of Stepan Dusan which included today’s Serbia, Albania, Macedonia, Central and Northern Greece, but not Bosnia. This empire supposedly collapsed after a defeat by the Turks on Kosovo Field on 28 June 1389. This programme of “Where a Serb dwells there is Serbia” exhibited a dramatic foreshortening of history, typical of nationalistic arguments and it rested on the fiction that Tsar Dusan’s sprawling, multi-ethnic, composite, medieval polity could be instilled with a modern idea of a culturally and linguistically homogenous nation-state. Serb patriots saw no inconsistency when they claimed the inhabitants of these lands were actually Serbs. Vuk Karadzic, the founder of the modern Serbo-Croat literary language spoke in 1836 of five million Serbs speaking the Serbian language from Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Banat of Temesvar, the Backa, Croatia, Dalmatia and the Adriatic coast from Trieste to Albania. He conceded that there were still some “who find it difficult to call themselves Serbs, but it seems likely that they will gradually become used to it” – he was referring to the Croats, above all. This unification programme committed Serbia to a long struggle with the two great land empires in the region, the Ottoman and the Austrian Empire. This policy was broadcast to the population through nationalist propaganda partly coordinated from Belgrade and partly driven by patriot networks within the press.

The memory of the Dusan Empire resonated within the extraordinarily vivid tradition of Serbian popular epic songs. These were long ballads, often sung to the melancholy accompaniment of the one-stringed gusla, in which singers and listeners relived the great archetypal moments of Serbian history. In villages and markets across Serbian lands, these songs established a remarkably intimate linkage between poetry, history and identity. In this tradition the memory of the Serbian struggle against alien rule was preserved. A recurring occupation was the defeat of the Serbs at the hands of the Turks at Kosovo Field on 28 June 1389. Embroidered over the centuries, this rather indecisive medieval battle burgeoned into a symbolic battle between Serbdom and the infidel foe. The mythical pantheon included the celebrated assassin Milos Obilic who supposedly cut the Sultan’s throat. Assassination, martyrdom, victimhood and the thirst for revenge on behalf of the dead were central themes. An imagined Serbia, projected on to a mythical past came to brilliant life within this song-culture. Printed versions of this epic poetry were published by Vuk Karadzic, remained in circulation among the growing literary elite.

The redemption of “lost” Serbian lands stood at the centre of Serbian foreign policy. But where exactly should the process begin? There was a mismatch between the visionary objective of “unification” and the meager financial and military resources available. So Belgrade had to respond opportunistically to rapidly changing conditions on the Balkan peninsula. As a result, the orientation of Serbian foreign policy between 1844 and 1914 swung like a compass needle. It had to struggle with the discrepancy between a visionary nationalism that suffused the whole political culture and the complex ethno-political realities of the Balkans. Kosovo was at the centre of the Serbian mythscape, but it was not in ethnic terms an unequivocally Serbian territory. Muslim Albanian speakers had been in the majority there since at least the 18th century. Many of the Serbs who Vuk Karadzic counted in Dalmatia and Istria were in fact Croats, who had no wish to join a greater Serbian state. Bosnia, which even historically had never been part of a Serbian state, contained many Serbs, but also Catholic Croats and Bosnian Muslims. During Austro-Hungarian rule a census recorded 43% Serbs, 20% Croats and 33% Muslims. The survival of a substantial Muslim minority was one of the distinctive features of Bosnia, whereas in Serbia, the Muslim communities had for the most part been harassed into emigration, deported or killed during the long struggle for independence. Even more complicated was the case of Macedonia, whose precise historical boundaries remain controversial even today. The existence of a Macedonian language is acknowledged by linguists in the whole world except Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece.

This mismatch between national visions and ethnic realities made it highly likely that the realization of Serbian objectives would be a violent process. Some statesmen, among them Nikola Pasic, advocated a union of Serbs and Croats under the assumption, first, that they were in essence the same people and second, that the Serbs would have to lead this process because they were a more authentically Slavic people than the Catholic Croats. Clandestinity was thus pre-programmed into the pursuit of “liberty” for Serbs who were still subjects of neighbouring states. This preference of covert operations promoted Serb guerrilla activity. The regicide network was deeply involved in this cross-border activity. Militia activity steadily expanded in scope and there were numerous violent skirmishes between Serb Cetnik guerrillas and Bulgarian volunteers, for example. Irredentism of this type was fraught with risk. It was easy to send guerrilla chiefs into the field, but difficult to control them once they were there. In 1907 for example it was clear that a number of Cetnik bands were operating in Macedonia independently of any supervision. The devolution of command structures to activist cells had fatal implications for the events of 1914. The Belgrade political elite became accustomed to a kind of “doublethink” founded on the pretense that the foreign policy of official Serbia and the work of national liberation beyond the frontiers of the state were separate phenomena.

Until 1903 the potential for open conflict between Belgrade and Vienna was limited. The two countries shared a long border. The Serbian capital, Belgrade, was situated close to the Austro-Hungarian border. Serbian exports went mainly to the empire and a large part of its imports were sourced there. Russia’s policy was to carve a large Bulgarian territory on the Balkans. As long as Russia continued to play its Balkan policy with Bulgarian cards, relations between Vienna and Belgrade were likely to remain harmonious. Yet it was foreseeable that Bulgaria and Serbia would one day be rivals for territory in Macedonia. In 1881 Austro-Hungary and Serbia agreed on a commercial treaty, supplemented by a secret convention to assist Serbia in Macedonia. Serbia agreed, for its part, to accept the position of Austro-Hungary in Bosnia Herzegovina. Yet the Serbian public was deeply anti-Austrian. After the coup of 1903 and the installation of the new dynasty it soon became evident that Serbia’s new leaders planned to push towards greater economic and political independence from Austro-Hungary. Austria quickly recognized the new regime and pursued a threefold strategy, namely to ensure a commercial treaty with Serbia, to ensure that Serbian armaments orders would continue to be placed with Austrian firms and to contract a major loan to Belgrade. The failure to achieve any of these objectives was a disaster for Vienna. The Serbian armaments orders went to the French firm Schneider-Creusot instead of the Austrian Skoda of Bohemia. The Austrians reacted by closing the border to Serbian pork, triggering a customs conflict known as the “pig war” (1906-09). Serbia quickly found other export markets, especially Germany, France and Belgium and began to build slaughterhouses to gain independence from Austro-Hungary’s processing facilities. Finally Belgrade secured a major loan from Paris, granted in return for the placement of armament orders with French firms.

Like all emergent Balkan states Serbia was totally dependent on international credit, most of which was used to finance military expansion and infrastructural projects. Austro-Hungary had been a willing lender to Serbia. But since the loans outran the debtor state’s financial resources, they had to be hypothecated against various pledges. For each loan some definite revenue was pledged, or some railway property mortgaged. It was agreed that pledged revenues from railways, stamp and liquor taxes should be paid into a special treasury controlled jointly by the representatives of the Serbian government and the Austrian bondholders. This arrangement kept the Serbian state afloat in the 1880s and 1890s, but it did nothing to restrain the financial profligacy of the Belgrade government, which had accumulated a huge debt. With bankruptcy looming, Belgrade negotiated a new loan through which the old debts were consolidated at a lower interest rate. The pledged revenues were placed under a separate administration run partly by the creditors. In other words, fragile debtors like Serbia, the other Balkan states and also the Ottoman Empire, could secure loans on reasonable terms only if they agreed to concessions of fiscal control that amounted to the partial hypothecation of sovereign state functions. For this reason among others, international loans were a political issue of the highest importance. French international lending in particular was highly politicized. Paris vetoed loans to governments whose policies were deemed unfriendly to French interests and facilitated loans in return for economic or political concessions. Paris conceded loans to unreliable but strategically important clients and even pursued potential clients aggressively as in Serbia’s case.

The French loan to Serbia in 1906 was an important turning point. The French came to own more than three quarters of all Serbian debt. Repayment schedules extended forwards to 1967. In fact, Belgrade defaulted on the greater part of its obligations after1918. The lion’s share of this money went into military purchases, especially fast-firing artillery, most of which were transacted in France. All in all the Serbian economy was in an abysmal state. This had little to do with Austrian tariff policy, but with a process of general economic decline that was deeply rooted in the country’s economic history and agrarian structure. The emergence and subsequent expansion of Serbia were accompanied by a process of drastic de-urbanisation, as the mainly Muslim towns were depopulated through decades of harassment and deportations. What replaced the relatively urbanized and cosmopolitan imperial structures of the Ottoman periphery was a society and economy which was entirely dominated by smallholding Christian peasants. This was the consequence of the absence of a home-grown Serbian aristocracy and the ruling dynasties’ efforts to prevent the emergence of such a ruling class by blocking the consolidation of latifundial estates. While the cities shrank, the population grew at an awesome rate. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of marginal land were opened up for exploitation by young families, loosening social constraints on marriage and fertility. This rapid population growth further pushed the downward cycle of economic underperformance and decline until the outbreak of World War I. Per capita output in farming fell by 27.5% between the 1870s and 1912. The expansion of arable land led to a large-scale deforestation and thus to a decline in pasture lands needed to sustain large-scale pig-husbandry, traditionally the most profitable and efficient part of Serbian agricultural production. By the 1880s the beautiful forested wilderness of the Sumadija, perfect pasture land for swine, had all but disappeared. The status of the commercial and industrial sectors was bleak, even by Balkan standards. The rural population had poor access to markets and there was not much in the way of starter industries. Serbian economic development depended completely upon foreign inward investment. The first effort to pack and export plum jam on an industrial basis was launched by the employees of a Budapest fruit-processing company. But inward investment remained sluggish, in part because foreign firms were put off by the xenophobia, corrupt officials and underdeveloped business ethics. Harassment of foreign businesses by local authorities remained a serious problem.

Investment in Serbia’s human capital was just as unimpressive. The rural population cared little for education and saw schools as alien institutions imposed by the government. In 1905 the peasant-dominated parliament, Skupstina, voted to tax school books rather than home distillation. The result of this attitude was a strikingly low rate of literacy, ranging from 27% in the northern districts to only 12% in the south-east. This grim landscape or “growth without development” meant that Serbian society remained unusually homogenous both in socioeconomic and cultural terms. Even Belgrade, where the literacy rate in 1900 was only 21%, remained a city of rural immigrants, a world of “peasant urbanities”, deeply influenced by the culture and kinship structures of traditional rural societies, its beliefs and values. In an economy so lacking in opportunities for ambitious and talented young men, the army remained the biggest show in town. This explains the fragility of Serbian civilian authorities, a crucial factor in July 1914. The important role of partisan warfare of irregular militias and guerrilla bands owed its durability to the persistence of a peasant culture that remained wary of a regular army. Nationalism represented the single most potent political instrument and cultural force. The almost universal enthusiasm for the annexation of yet unredeemed Serb lands drew not only on mythical passions of popular culture, but also on the land-hunger of a peasantry whose plots were growing smaller and less productive. Under these conditions, the dubious argument that Serbia’s economic woes were the fault of Vienna’s punitive tariffs and the stranglehold of Austro-Hungarian capital met with enthusiastic popular support. Due to the weakness of commercial and industrial development Serbia’s rulers remained dependent upon international finance for their military expenditures to acquire new land, to secure an outlet to the sea and to pursue an active foreign policy.

Until the annexation of Bosnia Herzegovina by Austro-Hungary in 1908 Serbian nationalists had focused their interests on Macedonia. As the two formerly Ottoman provinces had been under Austrian occupation for thirty years and there had never been any question of an alteration of this arrangement, the nominal change from occupation to annexation ought to have been a matter of indifference. But the Serbian public took a different view, which resulted into an anti-Austrian rally. The anticipation of a war with Austro-Hungary became a “readiness to fight and victory seemed both easy and certain” according to a Russian observer. Pasic’s most influential adviser, Jovan Cvijic, stated that Bosnia Herzegovina held the key to the Serb problem; without Bosnia Herzegovina there could be no Great Serbian state. Leaders in Belgrade first encouraged the agitation, but then came to see that they could not reverse the annexation because Russia did little to encourage Serbian resistance. In Serbia a new mass organization sprang up to pursue nationalist objectives, the “Serbian National Defense”, recruiting thousands of members in villages across Serbia and auxiliaries within Bosnia Herzegovina. Serbian policy makers were exposed in this area. Domestically, the extremists were always at a rhetorical advantage and moderates found it difficult to make themselves heard.

The annexation triggered two important changes in Serbia. First, the link to Russia was strengthened and financial and political ties to France were reinforced including a huge loan from France. Second, the nationalistic groups were radicalized; a new secret entity the “Black Hand” was founded with Apis at the centre. The Black Hand propaganda did not acknowledge the separate identity of Bosnian Muslims and flatly denied the existence of Croats. They vowed to undertake revolutionary work in all territories inhabited by Serbs and to combat by all means available the enemies of the Serbian idea. The men saw themselves as enemies of the democratic parliamentary system in Serbia and propagated a proto-fascist ideology. The movement thrived on a cult of secrecy. New recruits swore an oath before a hooded figure in a darkened room pledging absolute obedience to the organization on pain of death. There was no central register of members, but a loose network of cells, none of which possessed an overview of the organization’s extent or activities. The Black Hand quickly spread into the structures of official Serbia and infiltrated the cadres of Serbian border guards and customs officers, especially along the Serbian-Bosnian frontier. The espionage agents of the “Serbian National Defence”, although outlawed in 1909, were still active in Bosnia and maintained a terrorist training camp. There was a paradoxically public quality to the clandestinity of the Black Hand. Recruitment processes were informal and semi-public; Apis would preside over banquets and dinners in the Belgrade cafés thronged with nationalist students. To be seen wining and dining with other conspirators at the regular table conferred a sense of importance and the existence of the Black Hand was a matter of general knowledge. Within Bosnia and Herzegovina the networks were interwoven with local groups of pan-Serb activists. In 1910 the Young Bosnians launched a suicide attack on the Austrian governor of Bosnia and when it failed, the attacker, Bogdan Zerajic, a Serbian student from Herzegovina, shot himself and his grave soon became a shrine for the Serb underground movement. His biography became one of the key cult texts of the pan-Serbian terrorist milieu, blending the themes of assassination and sacrifice reminiscent of the Kosovo epics. This attack marked the beginning of the systematic use of political terrorism against the political elite of Austro-Hungary.

In the Balkan Wars against the Ottoman Empire (19012-1913) the Serbian army was a factor to be reckoned with. For many of the territories newly conquered by Belgrade, the imposition of Serbian rule brought harassment and oppression. The conquered areas acquired for the moment the character of a colony. The government justified these decisions on the grounds that the cultural level of the new territories was so low that granting them freedom would endanger the country. In reality the chief concern was to keep the non-Serbs who constituted the majority in many areas out of national politics. The “new Serbs” had actually enjoyed better political rights under the Turks than they did under Serbian administration. On the Serbian side this war was fought both by regular army units and by partisan bands. There was much arbitrary destruction of Turkish buildings, such as schools, baths and mosques. The British reported systematic intimidation, arbitrary detentions, beatings, rapes, village-burnings and massacres by the Serbs in the annexed areas. Albanians, other Muslims, Bulgars, Vlachs and Jews dreaded the prospect of subjection to the Serbian state that drained every non-Serb community of its means of existence to an extent unknown in the blackest days of the Turkish regime. Buoyed up by its recent successes, the military leadership refused to cede control in the annexed zones. The senior echelons of the military and its intelligence service with its system of agents in Bosnia Herzegovina, the customs service and many government organs were deeply infiltrated by the networks, just as the networks were infiltrated by the state.

Apis was the principal architect behind the plot to assassinate Franz Ferdinand, the Austrian crown prince, but the idea originated from his associate Rade Malobabic, a Serb born in Bosnia Herzegovina and a spy in the borderlands. The archduke’s support for structural reforms of the monarchy that would assign more autonomy to the Slavic lands might have prevented a “Greater Serbian” union by carrying out these reforms. So, many within the Serbian irredentist milieu recognized this idea as a potentially catastrophic threat to their unification project. If Austro-Hungary were to transform itself successfully into a tripartite entity, governed from Vienna along federal lines, with Zagreb for example as a capital with the same status as Budapest, there was the danger that Serbia would forfeit its vanguard role as leader of the South Slavs. The typical logic of terrorist movements is that reformers and moderates are more to be feared than outright enemies and hardliners.

The three Bosnian Serb youths recruited for the assassination were all 19 years of age, they were good friends, from poor families and unhappy households: Trifko Grabez, Nedeljko Cabrinovic und Gavrilo Princip. They were not in the best of health. These boys had little in the way of bad habits. They were made of that somber youthful stuff, rich in ideals but poor in experience, that modern terrorist movements feed upon. They read nationalist poetry and irredentist newspapers and pamphlets. The boys dwelt at length on the suffering of the Serbian nation, for which they blamed everyone but the Serbs themselves and felt the slights and humiliations of the least of their countrymen as if they were their own. A recurring theme was the treatment of Bosnians under Austro-Hungarian rule, a complaint that overlooked the fact that Bosnia was more industrialised and more prosperous in terms of per capita income than most of the Serbian heartland. Sacrifice was an obsession with the three, a fascination with the figure of the suicide assassin that was central to the Kosovo myth. Within the nationalist networks there were older men prepared not just to help them with money and advice, but also to show them respect and affection, to provide them with a mission. The Belgrade coffee house social milieu provided them with a sense of belonging. The prevalent mood there was ultra-nationalist and anti-Austrian. There the three were provided with pistols and ammunition. Once planning for the assassination began in earnest, care was taken to ensure that there was no ostensible link between the assassins’ cell and the authorities in Belgrade. Milan Ciganovic, was the assassins’ handler, a Bosnian Serb and Black Hand member. All orders were passed by word of mouth. There is no paper trail. Training took place in Belgrade. The assassins’ instructions were to shoot themselves as soon as the assassination had been carried out or to take their lives by swallowing cyanide, an act of martyrdom. The three entered Bosnia with the help of the Black Hand and the Serbian customs service. In Sarajevo they were received by a local cell headed by Danilo Ilic, a Bosnian Serb and Black Hand member who had been trained as a school teacher on an Austrian government scholarship. The boys would be unable to testify because they knew nothing about the greater background. The impression would thus emerge that this was a purely local undertaking with no links to Belgrade.

In the Habsburg Empire under the Compromise of 1867 power was shared between the two dominant nationalities, the Germans in the west and the Hungarians in the east. Each of these two entities had its own parliament; there was no common prime minister and no common cabinet. Only foreign affairs, defense and defense-related aspects of finance were handled by joint ministers who were answerable directly to the Emperor. The dualist compromise had many enemies, most of all because it disadvantaged all the other nationalities of the empire. So the last decades before World War I were increasingly dominated by the struggle for national rights among the eleven official nationalities of the empire: Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Romanians, Ruthenians, Poles and Italians. How these challenges were met varied between the two imperial halves.

In Transleithania the Hungarians dealt with the nationalities problem mainly by behaving as if it did not exist. The franchise extended to only 6% of the population because it was pegged to property and favoured Hungarians, who made up the bulk of the wealthier strata of the population. Since the late 1870s the government pursued a campaign of aggressive “Magyarisation”. Education laws imposed the use of the Magyar language on all state and religious schools. Teachers were required to be fluent in Magyar and could be dismissed if they were found to be “hostile to the Hungarian state”. There were harsh measures against ethnic minority activists. In Cisleithania, by contrast, successive administrations tampered endlessly with the system in order to accommodate minority demands. Franchise reforms supported this attitude. In 1907 a universal male suffrage was introduced. But these democratization measures merely heightened the potential for national conflict, especially over the issues of language use in public institutions such as schools, courts and the administration. The 516-seat parliament was the largest in Europe and ideological party diversity was cross-cut by national affiliations. Since there was no official language in Cisleithania, in contrast to Hungary, there was no single official language of parliamentary procedure. German, Czech, Polish, Ruthenian, Croat, Serbian, Slovenian, Italian, Romanian and Russian were all permitted. But no interpreters were provided, and there was no facility for recording or monitoring the content of speeches that were not in German, unless the deputy himself provided a translated text. Deputies from the most insignificant factions could thus block unwelcome initiatives by delivering long speeches in a language only few could understand:filibustering. Between 1912 and 1914 several parliamentary crises crippled the legislative. But the business of government could always be carried out under emergency powers. Despite these symptoms of dysfunctionality, in reality, the roots of Austria’s political turbulence went less deep than appearances suggested. Ethnic conflicts never came close to the levels of violence experienced in the Russian Empire or Northern Ireland or Northern Spain from the 1970s onwards.

Economically the Habsburg Empire passed through a phase of strong economic growth in the last pre-war decade with a corresponding rise in general prosperity; an important contrast to the contemporary Ottoman Empire. Free markets and competition across the empire’s vast customs union stimulated technical progress and the introduction of new products. The sheer size and diversity of the empire meant that new industrial plants benefited from sophisticated networks of cooperating industries underpinned by an effective transport infrastructure and a high-quality service and support sector. Economic growth was particularly visible in Hungary. In the 1840s 90% of exports to Austria consisted of agricultural products. But by 1913 Hungarian industrial exports had risen to 44%, while the constantly growing demand for cheap food of the Austro-Bohemian industrial region ensured that the Hungarian agricultural sector thrived as well, protected from Romanian, Russian or American competition. 1887-1913 saw an industrial revolution, a real take-off into self-sustaining growth. Pig-iron consumption increased four times, as well as railroad coverage, infant mortality decreased and elementary schooling figures surpassed those in Germany, France, Italy and Russia. Austro-Hungary was one of the fastest growing economies in Europe before the war with approximately 4.8% annual growth in Hungary.

There was furthermore unmistakable progress towards a more accommodating policy on national rights, at least in Austria. The equality of all subjects’ nationalities and languages in Cisleithania was formally recognized in the Basic Law of 1967 and a body of case laws. Throughout the last peacetime years the authorities continued to adjust the system in response to national minority demands. Even the Hungarian administration was showing signs of a change of heart. The South-Slavs of Croatia-Slavonia were given the guarantee of a free press and they met many demands of the Romanian majority in Transylvania. The case by case adjustments to specific demands suggested that the system might eventually produce a comprehensive structure of guarantees for nationality rights within an agreed framework. The administration was getting better at responding to material demands of regions. It was the state, of course, and not the beleaguered parliaments that performed this role. The proliferation of school boards, town councils, county commissions and mayoral elections ensured that the state intersected with the life of the citizens in a more intimate and consistent way than political parties or legislative assemblies. It was not an apparatus of repression, but a vibrant entity, a broker between manifold social, economic and cultural interests. The Habsburg bureaucracy was costly to maintain. But most inhabitants associated the Austro-Hungarian state with the benefits of orderly government: public education, welfare, sanitation, the rule of law and the maintenance of a sophisticated infrastructure. These features loomed large in the memory after the monarchy’s extinction.

Most minority activists acknowledged the value of the Habsburg commonwealth as a system of collective security. The bitterness of conflicts between minority nationalities, for example Croats and Serbs, Poles and Ruthenians and the many areas of ethnically mixed settlements suggested that the creation of new and separate national entities might cause more problems than it resolved. Before 1914 radical nationalists seeking full separation from the empire were still a small minority. In many areas, nationalist political groups were counter-balanced by a network of associations nurturing various forms of Habsburg patriotism, especially around the figure of Emperor Franz Joseph. Yet by 1914 he had become of force of inertia. There were signs that he was drifting out of touch with contemporary life: in 1913 he was 83. Nevertheless, the emperor remained the focus of powerful political and emotional attachments. Prosperous and relatively well administered, the empire exhibited a curious stability amid turmoil. Crises came and went without appearing to threaten the existence of the system as such. The situation was always “desperate, but not serious” (Karl Kraus).

A special and anomalous case was Bosnia Herzegovina, which Austria occupied from the Ottoman Empire on the authorization of the Treaty of Berlin in 1878 and formally annexed 30 years later. Bosnia was a heavily forested, mountainous land. Herzegovina consisted mainly of a wild, high karst plateau, a harsh terrain with virtually non-existent infrastructure. The provinces had experienced chronic turbulence under Ottoman rule, but what was exceptional was the relative serenity of the period from the mid-1880s until 1914. The condition of the peasantry was a sore point. The Austrians chose not to abolish the Ottoman state system, on which about 90,000 Bosnian serfs were still working in 1914. Some historians have seen this as evidence of a “divide and rule” system designed to press down the mainly Serb peasantry while favouring Croats and Muslims in towns. Yet cultural and institutional conservatism, not a philosophy of colonial domination, underpinned Austrian governance in the new provinces. “Gradualism and continuity” characterized Austrian rule in all areas of Bosnia Herzegovina where they encountered traditional institutions. Where possible, the laws and institutions inherited from the Ottoman era were harmonized and clarified, rather than discarded. But the Habsburg administration did facilitate the emancipation of serfs by means of a one-off payment; over 40,000 Bosnian serfs purchased their autonomy in this way until 1914. In any case, the Serbian serfs who remained within the old estate system were not especially badly off by the standards of early 20th century European peasants. They were probably more prosperous than their counterparts in Dalmatia or Southern Italy.

The Austrian administration did much to increase the productivity of agriculture and industry in Bosnia Herzegovina. They set up model farms, including a vineyard and a fish-farm. They introduced rudimentary agronomic training for country school teachers and even established a cultural college in Ilidze. At that time no such institution existed in Serbia. If the uptake of new methods was still relatively slow, this had more to do with the resistance of the peasantry to innovation than with Austrian negligence. There was a massive influx of investment capital. A road and railway network was constructed, including some of the best mountain roads in Europe. These infrastructure projects served a military purpose, too, but there was also massive investment across a range of sectors, including mining, metallurgy, forestry and chemicals production. The pace of industrialization peaked during the administration of Count Benjamin Kallay (1882-1903) and the consequence was a surge in industrial output: 12.4% per annum on average 1881-1913, which was without precedent in the Balkans. Austro-Hungary treated the new provinces as a showcase to demonstrate the humanity and efficiency of Habsburg rule. By 1914 Bosnia Herzegovina had been developed to a comparable level of the less developed parts of the empire. The worst blemish on this record was the appallingly low literacy rate and school attendance, which was even worse than Serbia’s. The Austrians built nearly 200 new primary schools, three high schools, a teacher training college and a technical institute, but the problem was getting the peasants to send their children to school. Only in 1909 after the formal annexation compulsory primary school education was introduced.

The Habsburg administration bore down hard on anything that smelled of nationalist mobilization against Austro-Hungary by suspending the Bosnian constitution, tightening government controls, banning the circulation of newspapers from Serbia and closing down Bosnian Serb cultural organisations; usually in response to an escalation in Serbian ultra-nationalist militancy. Another negative factor was the political repression in the Hungarian part of the empire, under which Serbs and Croats suffered in Croatia-Slavonia and the Vojvodina.

All in all the Austro-Hungarian administration was relatively fair and efficient with a pragmatic respect for the diverse traditions of the national groups in the provinces, as Theodore Roosevelt observed in 1904: Austro-Hungary “understood how to treat different nations and religions in this country on an equal footing and how thereby to achieve such great successes”. An American journalist observed in 1902 that there was a “tone of mutual respect and mutual tolerance” among the ethno-religious groups and that the courts were “wisely and honestly administered …and justice was awarded to every citizen, regardless of his religion or social position.” Only in retrospect did the collapse of the empire impress itself as in a constant process of decline and disintegration. Even Edvard Benes, the founding father of Czechoslovakia, expressed confidence in the future of Austro-Hungry as a commonwealth in 1908. Many critics of the empire struck a different note after its demise and praised the rule of law, recognized that individual liberties were more or less respected, political rights continuously extended and national autonomy growingly respected. Above all they appreciated the free flow of goods and persons which extended the benefits of Austro-Hungary to the remotest parts of the monarchy. Several former dissenters later fell prey to nostalgia. The Hungarian Mihaly Babits wrote in 1939: “we now regret the loss and weep for the return of what we once hated. We are independent, but instead of feeling joy we can only tremble.”

What can be the message of the catastrophe of 1914 for today? First, at certain critical moments the Habsburg Empire used to do nothing, which ensured its existence for 600 years. The mistake in 1914 was to do something, namely to declare war on Serbia. Not acting too rashly can be a blessing at times. Second, the establishment of nation states in Italy, Germany, Serbia drew those nationalities away from Austro-Hungary, which created a problem for the multi-national Habsburg state because those nationalities wanted to unite with the “mother countries”, but were mostly living in mixed territories. So the principle of nation states was never beneficial for Europe and it will never be so. The events of 1914 enabled the career of Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin who would not have had a career otherwise. In fact 1918 was not the end of multi-national empires. While the European land empires disappeared, the multi-national maritime empires Great Britain and France won the war and maritime imperialism continued until the 1960s. The answer to the collapse of the land empires from the west was the creation of “nation states”, which was a disaster for Europe. The second big disaster was the war guilt clause. After the last big European war, the Napoleonic wars, there was no marginalization and complete economic destruction of the losers, most of all France. The big mistake after World War I was the moral and economic devastation of the ones who were deemed “guilty” of the war, which led directly into the Great Depression and World War II. Fortunately after World War II the lesson was learned and again the integration of the losers was important, not their exclusion. Europe is still a collection of nation states that tolerate each other, but the notion of nationalism is very strong in all member states of the EU. Yet in the old EU member states most politicians and administrators try to negotiate compromises and fortunately do not resort to violent solutions at the moment. Austro-Hungary had many levels of administration and government where compromises could be found between nations like in the EU today: the parliaments, the constitution, the law system and boring and long-winded bureaucracy. Unfortunately in 1989 Western Europe was occupied with establishing the single currency and showed little interest in the integration of new member countries in CEE. From outside you see many of the virtues and benefits of the EU as a multi-national unit, but from inside electorates only see the overpowering bureaucracy. The tragedy of the “nation” is that we all would like to be self-sufficient as human beings. We would all like to be able to do everything ourselves, but at the end of the day we need the others to survive, we need help because you are always safer and more prosperous if you accept the help of others. And of course you will always feel more comfortable at home. What has to be kept in mind is that the US president Wilson designed this incongruous concept of the “nation state” for Europe from the point of view of a totally segregated US society. Another important aspect of the collapse of the multi-national state of Austro-Hungary was that as soon as the empire was divided into two halves, Austria and Hungary, there were only advantages for Germans and Hungarians, all the other nationalities lost out. They saw only the disadvantages and in the end the monarchy became ungovernable. The same might happen if we now decide to split the EU into a northern and a southern part, for instance. What’s more the role of Russia has always been tremendously important for Europe. At the moment President Putin represents the “hard power” opposing EU “soft power”, for example in the Ukraine. There is a real contest going on and there is the danger of the Ukraine falling apart, more or less along the lines of 1914 when the western Ukraine formed part of Austro-Hungary and the eastern Ukraine was a part of the Russian Empire. Putin appeals to the male macho egos of some European leaders and by that tries to draw them away from the idea of a unified Europe. Still, the concept of Europe is constantly changing and developing, such as Austro-Hungary gradually adapted itself to the demands and needs of the different nationalities living there. The nation state has never served the people of Europe; it has never contributed to the benefits of Europe. As difficult as it may seem, we have to move beyond it and have to overcome the concept of nation states in Europe. Things could so easily escalate if you do not pay enough attention. That’s why a situation like in 1914 should be prevented at all costs.


Clark, Christopher, The Sleepwalkers. How Europe Went to War in 1914, 2012