“The Melting Pot: How Ethnic Minorities In Austria-Hungary Identified Themselves During WWI”

by Daniel Jarosak

I was expecting the story behind Austria-Hungary’s ethnic minorities to be a simple and straightforward narrative of oppression and force. I based these beliefs on the fact that so many states emerged out of the once mighty empire. Although I was aware of the Empire’s tolerance for religion and willingness to allow its numerous ethnicities to practice their own ways of life, I was not expecting these policies to hold up in times of war. Instead, I was expecting the Habsburg Empire to relentlessly suppress any form of nationalism that did not coincide with the government in Vienna. However, after completing my research, I have come to realize that a simple story of repression was not the one that Austria-Hungary was going to tell.

Flag of Austria-Hungary. Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/29/Flag_of_Austria-Hungary_(1869-1918).svg

Flag of Austria-Hungary. Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/29/Flag_of_Austria-Hungary_(1869-1918).svg

What my research has showed me is that, instead of a narrative of only oppression, the Austro-Hungarian government took a unique approach with each ethnicity. Some individual minorities, as well as whole groups, even thrived during the war. I learned that there were essentially two groups: those who believed that Austria-Hungary was their legitimate homeland, and those that tried to subvert the authority of the government. From this, identity became the key question for me, and I asked, how did one identify themselves during this conflict, why did they choose a certain identity. Consequently, I plan on using the sources I have found to paint a story that focuses on identity and its fluid nature. For a quick overview of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its history, click here.

My first focus was to gain an understanding of how the Austro-Hungarians treated their minorities during the war. I believed that I should begin by researching broad topics, then begin narrowing down my research as time went on. Consequently, the book, The Habsburg Empire in World War I, a collection of articles by Kann, Kirlay, and Ficher (Boulder: East European Quarterly, 1977. Print) became my first resource. I found this book to be incredibly useful as it discussed the situation in the Empire broadly and gave one a good idea about what the overall condition was at the time of the First World War. The first article I examined, “Leap Into the Dark,” by Gabor Vermes (pages 29-44), discussed the idea of suffrage in the Habsburg Empire. While the article mostly discussed the issue from the point of view of the Austrians and Hungarians and how political parties debated the concept throughout the war, the article did shed some light on how many of the leaders of the Empire viewed the minorities of the Empire. The article discusses how some politicians in Hungary believed that all soldiers should be accepted into the constitution for their “heroic sacrifice and patriotism” (32). This shows that many of the minorities who fought did not have the same rights as other Austro-Hungarian citizens. However, the article did not shine as bright a light as I would have preferred. Thus, I examined another book to see what information it would reveal about the Habsburg’s internal politics, The Last Years of Austria-Hungary, another series of articles collected by Mark Cornwall (Exeter: U of Exeter, 2002). While the book did not shed much light on the issue of suffrage during the First World War, it did discuss in greater detail, the “Bohemian Question,” and how the Austrians dealt with that region.

The section of the article that discussed the First World War, and how it affected the Bohemian region, provided very useful insight regarding the shifting attitudes of the Czechs and Slovaks of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. While it did not give an account of any one specific individual, it did provide me with a broad experience that the average Czechoslovak might have experienced. What really stood out to me was the gradual shift in attitude from the people of the region. The people of Bohemia were, at the beginning of the war, considered to be one of the more loyal minorities of the empire. However, as the war progressed the author describes a shifting attitude of the people in the region . While a few political leaders pressed for an independent nation early in the conflict, such as Thomas Masaryk, and many Czechs and Slovaks did not want to fight their fellow Slavs (for more on this, click here) it was not until the end of hostilities that many Czechs and Slovaks began to protest the government in Vienna. It is this shift, described by the author, in identity and attitude that I found to be very interesting. In order to explore further this fluid identity, one must research more specific cases rather than simply look at the broad picture.

Edvard Beneš. Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/98/Edvard_Bene%C5%A1.jpg

Edvard Beneš. Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/98/Edvard_Bene%C5%A1.jpg

The book My War Memoirs by Edvard Benes (London: G. Allen and Unwin, 1928. Print) provides the reader with a gritty primary source that recounts one of the earliest proponents of an independent Czech (and later Slovak) land. Although Benes fled to Paris in the early days of the war, he was within the Habsburg Empire in the early days of the conflict. During this time, the Czech politician describes how he experienced an increasing sense of paranoia. This paranoia can be attributed to the fact that many of his political comrades were being rounded up by the Austro-Hungarian police. Additionally, Benes became increasingly worried that he was being watched and followed by the authorities.

Although his experience in wartime Austria-Hungary was limited, it does showcase how the Habsburgs dealt with politicians that they deemed dangerous. Their interactions with these Czech advocating for freedom show how worried the government was in Vienna when it came to many of the ethnicities within their borders. It also plays into the idea that remaining a part of the Habsburg Monarchy was not a constant one for the people residing within the large Empire. As previously stated, many Czechs early in the war wanted to remain with the Habsburgs, an idea that directly opposed Benes and his comrades. For a more comprehensive biography on the politician, click here.

Another case that was similar to Benes was that of the Czechoslovak troops in Siberia during the Great War, as described in the text, Czechoslovak troops in Russia and Siberia during the First World War, by Blanka and George Glos (New York: Vantage, 2000). Once again, because these events take place outside of Austria-Hungary, it will only be discussed briefly, this website goes into much greater detail about the history of the legion and its experience in Russia. However, the idea of Czechs and Slovaks fighting against their former country plays into the idea of identity and how it can be so fluid. What the book points out is that not only did captured soldiers make up these fighting units, but Czechs and Slovaks who lived outside of the Habsburgs’ control. While the author does not point this out, it is important to notice that the Czechoslovaks who did not reside in the Austro-Hungarian Empire were not as enthusiastic about Vienna controlling an area of land that was predominantly composed of Czechs and Slovaks.

While it is important to discuss the lives and experiences of ordinary citizens during the Great War, it is also imperative to look at the experiences of the soldiers fighting on the front lines of the conflict. This area is where the concept of identity is perhaps the most prevalent and its fluidity is the most pronounced.

Czech Troops. Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/be/Czech_Troops.jpg

Czech Troops. Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/be/Czech_Troops.jpg

When one looks at the army of Austria-Hungary as a whole, one cannot help but be skeptical about the effectiveness of a fighting force that is so heterogeneous, especially when all of the differing ethnicities are grouped together by their nationality. This thought can be further supported by the fact that Austria-Hungary faced countless defeats at the hands of the Russians and Serbs. However, as Gunther Rothenberg points out in his article, contained in the book, The Habsburg Empire in World War I, these defeats should be attributed to incompetent officers. The infantrymen, on the other hand, should be commended, especially early in the war. Additionally, despite its many drawbacks, the government in Vienna tried admirably to improve the army’s equipment and modernization.

In Peter Singer’s, Pushing Time Away, (New York: Ecco, 2003. Print) the author describes his grandfather’s experience during the war, in which he served as a soldier in the Austro-Hungarian Army. What is interesting about the author’s account of his grandfather is that, as a Jew, he was one of the many minorities that made up the Habsburg Empire. Although the grandfather describes himself as a physically unimposing man, who was abused verbally by his drill instructor, his actual service in the army during the Great War was nothing short of spectacular. By the end of the conflict, the once slight man was a highly decorated officer that had been wounded in the line of duty. This individual account fully supports the idea that despite the heterogeneity of the army, its men fought very well and very bravely. Singer’s enthusiasm for the Austro-Hungarian Army was not uncommon for the Jews who inhabited the empire. Many believed that it was the key to their continuing success in society (for more, see here). What is interesting to note, as Rothenberg points out in his article, is that the soldiers fighting might not have been fighting for pure patriotic reasons. The author explains that the men who are doing the fighting are too far away from the government or politicians to be concerned about their country. Instead, these man fight for one another and their respective fighting units. Thus, because these regiments and platoons fought under the Habsburgs, these men were identified as Austro-Hungarian soldiers. This can further be supported by Singer’s grandfather who never called himself a Jew in the Austro-Hungarian Army.

Unfortunately, by the end of the war, this spirit de corps would begin to crack under pressure. This loss of loyalty can best showcased by the 42nd Honved Infantry Division, a Croat fighting unit within the Austro-Hungarian Army. In his book, The Undermining of Austria Hungary, Mark Cornwall (New York: St. Martin’s, 2000. Print) describes how, throughout the war, the 42nd Division was hailed as one of the premier fighting units within the Habsburg Army, and during the latter years of the war, the unit was transferred to the Italian front. Unfortunately, the once feared and formidable 42nd Infantry Division began to lose its edge. Despite its reputation and track record, the men of the division were victims of near constant food shortages, and on numerous occasions were forced to use snow water as their primary source of hydration. In addition to making their lives more difficult, the psychological impact would have been severe as well. From their point of view, other units at the front lines were receiving supplies and equipment, and here they were, one of the most loyal and respected soldiers of the war eating snow! As a result, a contingent of both officers and men deserted, went to the allied trenches, and revealed classified information to the enemy. This was not only a major tactical issue for the army, it was also a huge embarrassment for the Austro-Hungarians. However, this incident does showcase how identity can be changed in the face of adversity and perceived disrespect.

What is unique about the minorities of Austria-Hungary is that all of them had differing experiences. Two people that were both of the same nationality could have had wildly different stories concerning the First World War. Part of this can be explained by the fact that the Habsburgs treated every ethnicity differently. It is from these differing interactions that we see differing identities. Because different people were exposed to different scenarios, their identities were as heterogeneous as the populace of the Habsburg Empire. That is why identity, especially national identity, is so important. Because of its fluidity, it gives historians a view of a State or nation through multiple viewpoints. That is why the case of Austria-Hungary is a beautiful case study for identity.

And so ends the experiences of a number of the ethnic minorities that resided within the borders of Austria-Hungary. I am fully aware that I did not discuss every single ethnic group that was contained in the massive Empire.

Source: http://www.zum.de/whkmla/histatlas/eceurope/hun1910pop.gif

Source: http://www.zum.de/whkmla/histatlas/eceurope/hun1910pop.gif

However, I feel that I was able to describe a number of circumstances and scenarios that could have been experienced by other ethnicities that were not discussed in both this story and the main analytical paper. Dissidents, loyalists, soldiers, and citizens were all mentioned and discussed in this story. When examining the sources in both this narrative bibliography and in the main paper, one will probably notice a disproportionate number of secondary sources to primary sources. There are a few reasons for this discrepancy.  For one, I could not find a large number of primary sources on the topic (this was further complicated by the fact that I do not speak fluent Czech or Slovak). Also, many of my secondary sources detailed groups that were not entire ethnicities or regions. For instance, the text on the Czechoslovak legions in Russia provided a great description of a relatively small group of individuals and their unique experience. Despite a disproportionate number of secondary sources, I believe that I have been able to showcase a thorough narrative that well encapsulates the numerous experiences of Austria-Hungary’s various ethnicities.

Works Cited

Beneš, Edvard, and Paul Selver. My War Memoirs. London: G. Allen and Unwin, 1928. Print.

Cornwall, Mark. The Last Years of Austria-Hungary: A Multi-national Experiment in Early Twentieth-century Europe. Exeter: U of Exeter, 2002. Print.

Cornwall, Mark. The Undermining of Austria-Hungary: The Battle for Hearts and Minds. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000. Print.

Glos, Blanka Ševčík., and George Ernest. Glos. Czechoslovak Troops in Russia and Siberia during the First World War. New York: Vantage, 2000. Print.

Kann, Robert A., Béla K. Király, and Paula S. Fichtner. The Habsburg Empire in World War I: Essays on the Intellectual, Military, Political, and Economic Aspects of the Habsburg War Effort. Boulder: East European Quarterly, 1977. Print.

Singer, Peter. Pushing Time Away: My Grandfather and the Tragedy of Jewish Vienna. New York: Ecco, 2003. Print.