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From the NS archive: The antecedents of the peace note

28 September 1918: What led to the collapse of Austro-Hungary?

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As the First World War came to a close in the autumn of 1918, the Habsburg monarchy of Austro-Hungary collapsed quickly. In Vienna and Budapest both socialist and nationalist movements were gaining traction. Revolution had been in the air since May the previous year. As it became clear the Allied forces would win the war, calls for greater national independence, away from Habsburg rule, grew. This article from September that year was written shortly after the Austro-Hungarian Peace Note, which proposed a conference calling for peace be held on neutral territory. Our correspondent notes the diplomatic negotiations that preceded the document as well as the public mood, including the observations of one German-Austrian socialist who mysteriously declared that, “Mental tidiness would be un-Austrian.”

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The conditions that resulted in the despatch of the Austro-Hungarian Peace Note may be summed up under three heads: (1) The German Nationalists in Austria and the Magyar Nationalists in Hungary hold as much as they can possibly hope to control. They may aim at obtaining strategic frontiers such as would put neighbouring states at their mercy (as has been done in the case of Rumania), but they do not particularly desire to add to their territories, or they would be in danger of being swamped by the subject races. Their annexationism is internal, not external. What they fight for is undisturbed dominion over territory they already possess. Hence their apparent moderation; therefore also, once the force of Austria-Hungary's neighbours seemed to have been broken, she declared herself ready for peace. (2) The internal situation of Austria-Hungary has got beyond her ruling circles. Her material resources are completely exhausted; the population is threatened with physical ruin; financially, Austria is bankrupt. Her war debts are more than she can bear, and there is, moreover, an uncovered deficit of twenty-one milliard crowns, of which only about half can be covered by new war loans – the rest will have to be provided by the printing-press – ie, by adding many milliards of paper money to the anyhow terribly depreciated currency. The entire country is infested by armed deserters; the army is decaying. Public security has disappeared. The subject races stand in such an irreconcilable opposition to the Hapsburg Monarchy that they will do nothing to prevent its ruin, not even where that ruin entails untold sufferings on them. Among the Germans and Magyars the sanest people begin to doubt whether such ruin can be possibly prevented. The Entente alone, by entering into peace negotiations with Austria-Hungary, might give a new lease of life to the dying state, and the Entente alone could save Austria-Hungary from an economic catastrophe. This is admitted even in Austrian papers. (3) Yet before entering into negotiations with the Allies, the ruling circles of the Hapsburg Monarchy had wished to come to an understanding with Germany with regard to a settlement of Eastern Europe that they together would then try to impose on the Allies. Negotiations for such an agreement have been carried on strenuously since 12 May, and after the second meeting of the Emperors at German Headquarters, on 13 August, an agreement was declared imminent. But a month later the hope of reaching such an agreement was obviously abandoned; otherwise the peace move would not have been made before its having been reached.

These are the material antecedents of the Austro-Hungarian Peace Note. Before it was actually despatched there was some curious bustle in the Austro-Hungarian diplomatic world, not confined to the interior of offices but freely displayed in the press and in public pronouncements. Count Burian was by no means the chief actor in the scene that preceded the despatch of the Peace Note.

On 7 September Count Burian received one of the leading members of the Austro-Hungarian Delegations (Committee for Joint Affairs) and said he hoped that the Delegations would meet in the second half of September, but should this prove impossible (ie, should it prove impossible to muzzle the Czechs and Jugo-Slan), he would privately confer on questions of foreign policy with the members of the Delegations. To all appearance, the immediate despatch of a Peace Note had not yet been decided upon. On the same day Count Czernin, the former Austro-Hungarian foreign minister, was to have received the freedom of the city of Vienna, but the ceremony having been postponed, he published the gist of the speech which he was to have delivered in an article in the Neue Freie Presse. He turned in it against those on either side who hope for victory. ''When we advance, we speak of a ‘hard peace’ – when the Entente gains ground, they declare against all compromise. At this moment they are drunk with victory over there; they imagine that they are able to break through and force a military decision; disappointment and disillusionment are as certain to follow as that the sun will set at night. But then we must not again wander away from the idea of peace by conciliation, or we shall move in a circle until all of us, friends and enemies, are ruined.” The article then proceeds to discuss the idea of a League of Nations as a war aim common to both sides; Austria ought to raise that cry, contends Count Czernin, and the initiative should come from the Austro-Hungarian Delegations. "It is a serious mistake to dispense with the Delegations, whether this is done for fear of criticism, or for any other reason.” This rather pointed remark addressed to Count Burian caused the Vienna Reichspost to discuss next day Count Czernin's peace article as "a battle" (domestic, of course), while the Neue Freie Presse found it necessary to assure the public that in writing the article Count Czernin had not aimed at upsetting Burian and regaining the post of minister for foreign affairs. Qui s'excuse s’accuse – even if this is done vicariously. Was it to qualify for peacemaker that Czernin had spoken in this strain? It is not for the first time that he has shed tears over suffering humanity and championed high ideals.” In a speech that conveyed the impression of deep moral conviction, he professed a League of Nations, international arbitration and general disarmament to have been his aims," wrote the Vienna Arbeiter Zeitung on 16 April 1918, when Czernin resigned office. "This has not prevented him from sharing the responsibility and guilt of peace treaties that carry in themselves the seed of future wars and stimulate militarism, the chief cause of all wars. He endorsed the peace formula 'without annexations or contributions'. But the peace of Brest-Litovsk, in which he collaborated, is the clearest treaty of annexations, and that with Rumania, which he concluded, though more moderate, comes very near it.” "These are my professions; I can act otherwise," was his motto.

Honesty is not in the nature of Count Czernin, nor does the position of the Austro-Hungarian government admit it in its representatives. Austria-Hungary is to raise the idea of a League of Nations! But can states such as Austria and Hungary, which assert their existence against the will of subject races and in defiance of the just national claims of their neighbours, be received into a League of Nations? When Count Czernin was out to break up Russia, " self determination” was an indisputable right, and the will to separate existence was alleged even where it did not exist. But when in his speech of 2 April 1918, after the peace of Brest-Litovsk had been concluded, and at a time when the Germans were victoriously advancing in France, Count Czernin came to speak about the national aspirations of the subject nationalities of Austria-Hungary, these were his words: "Could I live more at home, with the help of parties faithful to the State… I might be able to fight more successfully against these endeavours; but now I appeal to all those who wish for an early, honourable peace to close the ranks and to co-operate in fighting high treason.” The Germans no longer can keep for him the ring within which he hoped to batter down "the wretched Masaryks”. Does he expect the League of Nations to provide him with such an opportunity ? If we may put in a word in the wrangle of Austro-Hungarian statesmen, we should like to say this: whoever speaks, let Count Czernin remain silent.

The day after the publication of Count Czernin's article (9 September) Count Burian addressed representatives of the German press on a visit in Vienna. He spoke about victory being very improbable, if not impossible, for either side, and then proceeded to complain of the Entente aiming at the disruption of Austria-Hungary. "The question suggests itself whether it is not a crime against humanity to think of completely destroying that which history has produced, and which on this as well as on the other side requires improvement, but is capable of improvement, and to found a future paradise on the ruins, a paradise suffering from the defect that in view of the destructive methods of our opponents it cannot be attained except at the price of excessively heavy sacrifices?" Further on he again complained of the Allies desiring to "set right the inner affairs of other nations which are quite capable of doing so themselves". He finished with an explicit appeal for “a direct informative conversation, which would by no means amount to peace negotiations, but at which everything that now divides the belligerent parties could be discussed and considered ; then perhaps no further fighting would be required in order to achieve a rapprochement between them.” Thus the main idea of the Peace Note had already been evolved, but not its arguments. On 9 September Count Burian complained of the Allies proposing to break up Austria-Hungary; in the Note of 14 September he suggested that in the course of the past year they, and especially Great Britain, had abandoned that idea.

"Tomorrow the Premier, Lloyd George, will deliver a speech at Manchester, wherein he will probably deal with questions of war and peace," remarked the Neue Freie Presse in its leading article on 11 September. “Perhaps we shall learn, among other things, how Count Burian's suggestion of informal conversations, which would not necessarily amount to peace negotiations, has been received." Was the speech of 9 September meant as a dress rehearsal, and did Count Burian expect Allied statesmen to attend it? If so, we feel sorry for him.

Whilst Count Burian politely hinted at the possibility of reform, others, more sincerely, asserted its need. Count Heinrich Ltitzow, late Austro-Hungarian Ambassador at Rome, and a man morally much superior to the general run of Austrian diplomats, wrote as follows in an article published on 11 September (it will be marked what an epidemic of publicity raged in Austrian diplomatic circles during these days!): "I have lived too long abroad not to be acquainted to some extent with the minds of our opponents. I am convinced that it is by no means the feeling of hatred or the wish for revenge which has produced the cry for the dismemberment of Austria-Hungary; it is with the leaders of the Entente in the first place the feeling that Austria-Hungary in its present composition will for ever remain a storm-centre which will produce disturbances, even against the will of its rulers, once in this and once in that direction.”

Count Lutzow is not alone in seeing the need for thoroughgoing change within Austria-Hungary, and not the only one to delude himself and others into believing the unthinkable – that such a change could be carried out within its existing framework. It is almost a habit with the right wing of the Vienna socialists to clamour for "peace action” and for internal reform which is to pave the road to peace; but what they never state is how a satisfactory measure of reform could be achieved without destroying Austria-Hungary. “Mental tidiness would be un-Austrian,” recently declared a leading German-Austrian socialist when, in the fifth year of the war, he discovered that his party has no programme for solving the nationality programme of the Hapsburg Monarchy. And whilst the would-be reformers thus shrink from naming the necessary irreducible minimum of reform, the Austrian Premier, Baron von Hussarek, in a speech delivered on 11 September (what a crowded day!) explained the limits "set to reform in Austria-Hungary". The "development" must not infringe "the rights and constitution of the lands under the crown of St Stephen [Hungary], nor the idea of a united Austrian State". In other words, the Czecho-Slovaks, Jugo-Slavs, Ukrainians and Rumans of Hungary can never be united to those of Austria, not even within the boundaries of the Hapsburg Monarchy (otherwise the “rights of the crown of St. Stephen" would suffer); Magyar rule must be maintained in Hungary (this is Hungary’s "constitution") – German predominance must be maintained in Austria (this is the essence of "the united Austrian State"). Unless this is so, Austria-Hungary ceases to exist. But where is there room for "internal reform”? How can Austria-Hungary "set right her inner affairs”? How can that state be described as "capable of improvement"? Not least among the obstacles to peace is the fundamental insincerity of Austria-Hungary's rulers. One may talk to them and they pretend not to understand, but invariably agree – like Czernin at Brest-Litovsk. They insist on playing the buffoons in diplomacy and politics, the village idiots of Europe. Who else would have quoted old speeches suggesting that Great Britain proposes to preserve Austria-Hungary and passed over her most recent declaration concerning the Czecho-Slovaks? Imbued with an irresponsible opportunism and lacking in personal dignity, this clique, which does not represent any national opinion or interests, and has nothing at heart except the maintenance of its own dominion, reproduces in the midst of Europe the spirit of the Byzantine Court, of Chinese mandarins, and of the Turkish ancien regime. Metternich, in his old age, used to simulate deafness, though there was nothing wrong with his hearing. This may have been a good trick for an individual, but it is a bad joke if played in present circumstances. When the time comes for a general peace conference, we hope to see the territories now known by the name of Austria-Hungary represented by men who stand for some ideal and speak for nations.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)