The Rise and Fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire
[INTRO] The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is often explained far too simply: it was losing a war and the empire had too many ethnic groups so everybody declared independence… But this overlooks many important aspects of the collapse. The empire had always had many ethnic groups and had lost several wars, yet it didn’t break apart. The countries that came after the Austro-Hungarian Empire, such as Czhechoslovakia and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes were also multi-ethnic… yet they existed until the 90s… And if being multi-ethnic and losing wars means your country will break apart, then one has to wonder why countries like Belgium, Spain, or the USA still exist… Despite being multi-ethnic and being rather famous for losing wars. So in this video, we seek to give a more complete history of how Austria-Hungary rose to become one of the most powerful countries in the world and how it eventually broke apart. [CREATION] But before we can talk about how
it broke apart, we need to look at how it was created. Before the Austro-Hungarian Empire, there was the Austrian Empire. And in the Austrian they practised a system called ‘serfdom’. In this system a person received protection from their rulers and in exchange the person had to do whatever their ruler told them to do… Such as working for their ruler and handing over everything they produced… This was essentially slavery with extra steps and it was a very common in Europe from the middle ages al the way to the 19th century… Because in the 19th century most countries got rid of this system… But Austria was one of the last countries in Europe to still practise ‘serfdom’. And that became a problem in 1848, because that year revolutions swept across europe and all over Europe the people protested or even rebelled against their leaders: the absolute monarchy was abolished in Denmark, democracy came to the Netherlands, while France got rid of its king… again. And in the Austrian Empire people protested for basic rights,
such as the right to not be a slave. In Hungary these protests turned into a revolution whereby Hungary declared independence from the Austrian Empire, however, they would still accept the Austrian Emperor as their own emperor… So technically they weren’t rebelling against their emperor or the empire, only against Austria. Stating that they wanted to govern their own territory, while still being part of the empire… something that would be very important later. As you can imagine, Austria didn’t want to lose around half their territory and so the revolution was eventually suppressed… but very few rights were given to the Hungarians and so the underlying social issues resulting in revolution were not solved. With the rebellion crushed, the Austrian Empire decided to conquer more territories: it fought a war in Italy in1859… which it lost and had to give up a piece of territory. Then it decided to go to war with Prussia in 1866, a country located in modern day northern Germany and Poland. Germany at the time consisted
of dozens of smaller countries and for a long time, Austria was the most powerful German country, with most german states looking towards Austria for leadership. But it lost the war to Prussia. And as a result, all the German states now looked towards Prussia for leadership instead of Austria. As a result of these two wars, Austria lost more and more power in
Europe. At the same time, it faced the issue that people within the empire began to openly question why they should stay with a failing empire. Afterall, they were being sent to fight wars which the Austrians kept losing. Any economic advantages from the german states were gone, now that Prussia was the most powerful one. And unless you were Austrian, you were a second-class citizen in your own country. So another civil war seemed likely. The Austrian leadership wasn’t stupid, of course. They realized the power they held
outside their own borders was disappearing, while within their borders there were several groups of people who didn’t want to be part of the empire anymore. If they wanted to keep the peace, they would need to spend more money on the military… But the problem with spending money on the military is that you can’t spend that money on your own country. And as a result, you develop slower than you would otherwise. For Austria, this meant they’d fall behind the other powers of Europe. Something the Austrian leadership was unwilling to let happen. And while Austria was becoming weaker, everybody
around them was becoming stronger: Great Britain and France had started industrializing, the German states were becoming more united and would for the German Empire in 5 years, while Italy was also unifying into a single kingdom. In short, Austria was being left behind by the rest of Europe. So… what could Austria do to make sure it would remain a powerful country in Europe? Well, it couldn’t look outward anymore; trying to conquer more territory is exactly what caused the decline of Austria. The Germans and Italians were too busy unifying; Russia had helped them in the 1848 revolution but when Russia asked the Austrians for help in the Crimean War the Austrian Empire declined… so Russia was unlikely to help them again; And the French, Spanish, and British were too far away to really care. So without any external powers to turn to for help, the Austrians
need to look within its own borders to Make Austria Great Again! At the time, the Empire of Austria controlled lands with various different ethnic groups in them: Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Croats, Romanians, Polish, Ukrainians, Italians, Serbs… but the largest of these ethnic groups were the Hungarians. And the rebellion of 1848, began in the Hungarian part of the empire. So the Hungarians were seen as one of the weakest links in the empire: should they rebel again, it’s likely the entire empire would fall apart. And so it was decided to focus their efforts on Hungary. But… why would the Hungarian ruling class
agree to closer ties with the Austrian Empire? Well, the Hungarian elites wanted more control for themselves in hungary. During the revolution of 1848, the Hungarian people made several demands from the Austrian Empire, which they never got after the rebellion was crushed. For example, some of the things they wanted were their own Hungarian Parliament, instead of the Austrian emperor appointing people; they wanted their own Hungarian police force instead of the Austrian police; and they wanted the Austrians to stop sending Hungarians to die in wars for Austria. But the Hungarians never had enough power in the empire to make
these dreams come true… until now. At first they put pressure on the Austrian emperor for more political freedom in the 1850s… But it wasn’t until the Austrian Empire lost the war against Prussia that they began to realize just how close they were to another revolution. This meant that Hungary had a choice: they could either start another revolution, which they might lose again. Should they win that revolution they would be a relatively
small country surrounded by far more powerful countries such as the Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and Prussia… or they could remain inside the Austrian Empire and gain the right to rule their own territory they way they wished to, and to have a say in the ruling of the Austrian Empire instead of becoming the puppet of another empire. And the Hungarian leadership decided on the second option. The two sides eventually came to an agreement on June 8th, 1867, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was created. And you know some German-speakers came up with this name because of how long it is. The Austrians and Hungarians agreed that Austria was no longer the overlord of Hungary, but that Austria and Hungary were now equal partners within the empire. Two countries who were part of one empire, because they both accepted Franz Joseph I as their emperor. Each region was allowed to pursue their own
interests; Austria could focus on regaining the strength it had lost, while Hungary would focus on trying to change as little as they could so that the current leaders of Hungary could stay in power. Each state had its own parliament with its own prime minister with around 12% of the male population allowed to vote. However, the emperor could veto any and all legislation made by the Austrian or Hungarian parliaments. And while internal affairs were determined by the parliaments, the military and foreign affairs were handled directly by the emperor. And so, a large amount of peace and stability
returned to the now Austro-Hungarian Empire… The creation of this new empire brought many advantages. They no longer needed to spend as much money on maintaining stability and this in turn allowed the empire to grow its economy. In fact, between 1876 and 1913, the empire grew at around 2.4% each year on average. This might seem very low today, however, back then this was an incredible amount of growth. It was the 4th fastest growing economy, surpassed
only by Denmark (3.2%), Sweden (3%) and Germany (2.9%). This prosperity brought many other advantages to the empire: it’s population grew to become the 3rd largest in Europe, it became the 4th largest producer and exporter of machinery, only surpassed by the USA, Germany, and Great Britain. It was the third largest producer of electrical equipment after the USA and Germany. The country went from an underdeveloped agrarian state to an industrialized agrarian state, with a well-developed agricultural industry, and exported a large amount of products across the world. On average, it's estimated that the average A-H citizen became 3 times richer in this period. And while these are all impressive, the empire was still behind most of the western european countries in terms of the overall size of the economy, especially regarding the development of industry and technology, with far fewer people working in factories or creating new technologies than those in the west.
But this growth wasn’t equal in the empire. The Austrian part of the empire had become one of the richest regions in all of Europe by the 20th century… yet in other parts of the empire people were far poorer. For example, the Hungarian elites resisted industrialisation. The reason for this is that people who live in an industrialized society make more demands of their government, such as, for example, better labour rights or more political freedoms. And if a business person becomes successful, they might become just as rich as the aristocracy, thus creating competition for the aristocrats. The Hungarian elite didn’t want to deal
with this and so they suppressed economic growth, causing the Austrians and Hungarians to develop differently. So rather than bringing the Hungarians closer to the Austrians, the creation of the A-H Empire instead increased a lot of the cultural differences between the two main ethnic groups in the empire. But this doesn’t mean that the rulers of this empire didn’t see the problems they were being faced with. And so they tried to stabilize their country over the decades. For example, they noticed that when the Hungarians got to make their own decisions, they became less likely to revolt. And with so many different
ethnic groups living in the empire, many of them started asking for the same rights the Hungarians had received. Afterall, why should they get equal rights but not the rest? And as the minorities asked for more rights, the leadership could point towards the Hungarians as an example of how more rights for everybody meant greater stability in the empire. In fact, modern research has shown that countries who suppress their people become more unstable over time as more time and resources is spent on preventing revolts, rather than improving the lives of its people. The A-H Empire realized this in the 19th century. And so many minorities were given various basic human rights, which minorities in other countries often didn’t have. Such as the right to use their own language as the official language in the regions they
were the majority and the right to have their own culture. So street names were now written in your own language, government forms could now be filled in in your own language, or you could go to school in your own language. To quote one such law from the Austrian part of the Empire: “All races of the empire have equal rights, and every race has an inviolable right to the preservation and use of its own nationality and language. The equality of
all customary languages in school, office, and public life, is recognized by the state. In those territories in which several races dwell, the public and educational institutions are to be so arranged that, without applying compulsion to learn a second country language, each of the races receives the necessary means of education in its own language.” The croats, slovenes, and italians all received official recognition within the empire, where you could go to school in your native language, have official documentation in your own language, and even have a local parliament made up in large part from people of your own culture.
It was even possible for a member of a minority to get elected in the national parliament of Hungary or Austria, something almost unheard of at the time. And because giving rights to Hungary had stabilized the empire, Austria-Hungary gave various peoples their own regional government controlled by the minority living in that region. One prominent group were the Croats, with the leaders of the empire seriously discussing the idea of turning the Austro-Hungarian Empire into the Austro-Hungarian-Croatian Empire… which the German-speakers loved because that meant an even LONGER name… And we all know Germans have a fetish for long names. And even the jewish population was given more
rights, eventually becoming the most open society towards the jewish people in the world. In essence it was more welcoming to minorities than any other country in the world at that time. And in order to keep the empire together, more rights were given to the minorities it controlled. As a result, almost all of the
major minorities had their own regional parliament, with regional leaders, controlling regional affairs. And this was important in the collapse of the empire… because almost every region now had the political leadership needed to govern themselves. And people who can govern themselves are far more likely to successfully break away from the country they are a part of. This will not necessarily cause the breakup of your country, however. A good example is the USA, where every single state has the political leadership needed to govern itself… yet the country hasn’t split apart… recently… But greater diversity also has a major downside: different peoples will have different views on how to run the country. Each side had their own interests and very often the Hungarian and Austrian goals were very different, meaning that choosing the direction in which the empire should go, became very difficult. So difficult, in fact, that the empire was often incapable
of choosing any direction at all. And within the empire the different regions began going in different directions. By the 20th century Austria was industrialized, while Hungary focussed mostly on agriculture and exported its food around the world. Galacia,
now part of poland, was so poorly managed that it experienced frequent famines. While the Romanian region of Istria was poor because it relied on livestock, which became unprofitable and the people there couldn’t adapt their economy to produce new products. In essence, every region was very different from each other. The thing keeping Austria-Hungary together was that everybody accepted the A-H emperor as their own emperor… But in a world where the monarchy was slowly dying. If any of the
regions rejected the idea of a single person ruling over them… there would be little reason to stay within the empire… except that the emperor controls the army. So what if, hypothetically, the empire got involved in a major war and lost most of its army? [START WW1] So anyway, then WW1 happened. WW1 was a disaster for Austria-Hungary. It lost over ⅔ of its army, faith in the emperor was shattered, and the country was starving. By 1918 it was clear to everyone in the Austro-Hungarian Empire that they were losing the war. But, the A-H empire and the Austrian Empire had lost wars before. So then how come the empire
fell apart after losing WW1? Well, the main reasons for this are the chaotic internal affairs of the nation and the communist revolution in Russia. We will start with this rorschach test: Russia… Why was the Russian revolution of 1917 important for Austria-Hungary? Well, for that we need to look at the geopolitical situation of Europe at the time. In the west there were Great Britain and France, two of the most powerful countries in the world at the time, with vast colonies around the globed. And both of them were afraid of Russia; it was a gigantic country that slowly conquered more and more territory in Eastern Europe. It was too large to conquer and too powerful to ignore. Russia wanted to conquer more of Eastern Europe because it had no good mountains or rivers to prevent foreign armies from marching into its territory. So it needs to conquer all the way to the Central European mountain ranges to have borders that would be easy to defend… But if Russia managed to conquer all the way to modern day Germany and Romania, it would become so powerful that it would become a threat to the western powers. So those western powers tried to prevent
Russia from growing too big. And the best way for them to defend themselves was to make sure there were other powerful nations on Russia’s borders, so it would be difficult to conquer more of Europe. Austria-Hungary was therefore seen as a good buffer between Russia and Western Europe. But then, revolution swept across the Russian Empire. Many Russian regions gained their independence in the civil war that followed, meaning that Russia was pushed back further east and Russia was no longer seen as a serious threat for now… And in a sense they were correct, because it would take nearly 3 decades before the Soviet Union would finally become a major power in European affairs again. But if Russia wasn’t a serious threat anymore, there was no reason for Austria-Hungary to still be a buffer between Russia and Western Europe. And so the victorious countries of WW1 had to decide what they were going to do with the empire after the war was over. And they
concluded that it was far easier to control several smaller countries than it was to control one large one, that it was a good way to take a powerful ally away from Germany, and that those smaller countries would not be able to become significant powers in Europe. This meant that there was 1 fewer major power in Europe that the other countries had to deal with… And we can see the results of the decision clearly today, where the countries that came about from the breakup of the empire, played relatively minor roles in European affairs. In essence, this region now needs to ally itself with the larger powers of the world in order to get what they want… For example, countries such as Hungary, Slovakia, or Croatia might at times cause issues within the European Union, yet they always yield to the larger interests of the great powers that surround them such as France or Germany.
Something that would not be so easy if they were still a single unified country. And even though Austria-Hungary kept asking for peace, they were rejected over and over again because the victorious powers wanted to make sure that the empire would fall apart. And they began to actively support the different regions to break apart from the A-H Empire to form their own independent countries. And so, without a powerful Russia, there was
no reason for a powerful Central European power. And thus, the victorious countries decided to break up the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And so we come to the second reason for the collapse: the internal chaos of the empire. Austria-Hungary had sent 4 million soldiers to war, 1 million of them were killed and another 1.5 million were taken prisoner. The people were starving. And the emperor, the leader of the armed forces, was becoming less
and less popular every time the empire lost yet another battle. And as the empire lost more battles, it started relying on their much more powerful ally Germany. In may of 1918, it even made a deal with Germany where it would become subordinate to German leadership. Meaning that the A-H army would basically do whatever Germany told it to do. But the emperor was one of the big unifying aspects of the empire and also in charge of the army. So if Germany was now taking the lead in the army, then there was little point
in having an emperor. And so, Austria-Hungary faced two issues at once: people were questioning the point of staying with the empire and countries outside the empire conspiring to break it apart. The breakup started on April 8th, 1918. Representatives from the various minorities met in Rome to discuss the independence of their people… Most of them were in exile at the time. They included Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Czech, Polish, and Romanians. At the end of this conference they declared that the oppressed minorities of Austria-Hungary would leave the empire to form their own nation… spurred on by the fact that the allies wouldn’t let them be a single nation even if they wanted to. The nations that were about to win the war supported this decision and from then on considered their goal the creation of new Czechoslovak, Yugoslavian, and Polish states. This would
be the tool by which the allied nations would build a new system of states in Central Europe. This was quite concerning to the leaders of the A-H Empire and they tried to accommodate these new independence movements. In May the Autrians were willing to give the Polish their own kingdom within the empire, just like the Hungarians and Austrians had; and in July they supported that the slavic regions of the A-H Empire also form their own kingdom within the empire, thus giving them the same rights as the Hungarians and Austrians as well… But these lands were ruled by the Hungarians and they were unwilling to give these lands up. So these plans didn’t succeed. But the leaderships of both Hungary and Austria realized that if they wanted to keep the empire together, they needed to keep the other regions happy, seeing as their army was busy fighting other countries. And so a new plan was created: turn the Austro-Hungarian Empire into a federation with each state able to govern their own internal politics. They would call it the United States of the Danube… the Danube being an important river which flowed through the A-H Empire.This would keep the empire together, solve the
issue of minority rights, everybody would keep access to the economies of the other regions, and they would assure that the individual regions would not become a puppet of either Russia or Germany… But this idea was not supported by the other powers of Europe. They didn’t want a powerful nation in Central Europe, they wanted to remove Central Europe as a threat in European politics. By this time the empire had become so weak that it could no longer decide its own affairs if the rest of Europe was against their decisions… And so, the empire ran out of plans that would keep the empire together. [BREAKUP BEINGS] In trying to accommodate all the ethnic groups, the empire had given more and more power to the different peoples within their empire. Essentially, the central
government became less important while the regional governments became more important… until eventually the central government stopped being important all together. Yet none of the ethnic groups decided to take up arms against the A-H empire… As very few people were willing to start a violent revolution and very few people were being oppressed… It began on October 21st Austria declared itself an independent nation, no longer interested in ruling over an empire with the Hungarians. As Austria’s leaders became more concerned with the issues inside the Austrian borders and with not enough soldiers to keep the empire together, the individual regions each chose to split apart from the empire.
Around the same time, Croatia decided to stop taking orders from Hungary and was openly talking about forming a new country. On October 28th, Czechoslovakia declared independence… Without the empire doing anything about it. On the same day, Galicia joined Poland. On October the 29th Croatia, Slovenia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina declared its independence to form a new country with Serbia and Montenegro, called the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. 1st of November Hungary declared independence. 1 December 1918 these territories joined Romania. This last part would eventually be annexed by Italy in 1920 On November 11th, the Austrian prime minister dismissed the emperor. He did not try to enforce
his rule over Austria and simply retired. In essence, the Austro-Hungarian Empire no longer mattered to anyone in power… not even its own emperor. And so Emperor Karl became Mr Karl. Austria and Hungary would take responsibility for the war. The collapse of the empire, and the formation of the new states was relatively peaceful everywhere, and did not face significant resistance from the central powers. They split up the economies of these regions, causing
massive economic chaos as businesses could no longer sell to the other countries anymore as borders were set up, while they also found it more difficult to buy the parts and resources they needed to produce their own products. This would create massive economic issues in the 1930s, when the Great Depression occurred, one of the worst economic recessions in history. The new countries that emerged needed a justification for their own existence… and many of them found that justification in their ethnic background: the A-H Empire had already split the empire up into several regions based on where the ethnic groups lived… so the new countries decided to go with nationalism, meaning that they were the rightful rulers of the new countries because they were all the same ethnic groups… and even today, many people say that the reason the empire fell apart was because of ethnic issues. Yet the new states had these same
issues: Czechoslovakia was composed of 2 major ethnic groups: the Czechs and Slovaks; the kingdom of serbs croats and slovenes was composed of [ETHNICITIES]... And their issues would remain until the Yugoslav Wars erupted. So the real cause wasn’t ethnic issues because these issues had been present in that region of the world for over a century… and the new countries that emerged had almost the same issues as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, yet they didn’t break apart further into even smaller countries for over 70 years. And so the cause of the breakup is generally found in a lack of troops to keep the empire together, various countries conspiring to break the empire apart, and the large amount of autonomy allowing the regions to easily transfer from a regional government to a national government.
And so ended the Austro-Hungarian Empire.