The Difference in the Collapse of the Russian and Habsburg Empires 1916-1918

The Difference in the Collapse of the Russian and Habsburg Empires between 1st January 1916 and November 1918

By James Westbrook
The University of Sheffield, United Kingdom

 

There is no disputing that there is an underlying link between the collapse of the Romanov and Habsburg dynasties; a cataclysmic event that shook the very foundations of two of the most powerful European empires beyond repair. The First World War administered a fatal blow to the social consensus, political status quo, and economic systems of both states, and although I will argue that this was more of a catalyst effect in the collapse of Russia, it was certainly the primary cause of the downfall of the Habsburg monarchy and the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As aforementioned, the significant difference between the collapse of these two empires is that the chain of events that would take place in Russia had been cemented for more than a decade prior to the February Revolution in 1917, and that the First World War delivered the final push towards the removal of Tsar Nicholas II’s autocratic government. However, the outbreak of the war seriously undermined the imperial consensus within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, reversing the equation of its unopposed rule in Europe. November 1916 becomes an important date in this development because it is the year Emperor Franz Joseph died, and rule of the Habsburg kingdom became increasingly uncertain, and the previous unwavering loyalties of the Empire’s subjects began to disintegrate, such as in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Croatia, Italy, and Serbia. The ultimate defeat of the Central Powers was the unequivocal terminal wound to the Habsburg monarchy as it became a unanimous decision amongst the Allied Powers to dismantle this vast empire in the wake of their victory.

 

The collapse of the Russian Empire in March 1917 was a foreseeable inevitability, even from as early as the late 19th century, as there was widespread discontent within the Empire and various terrorist organizations waged a violent war against the Tsarist regime. This culminated in Narodnaya Volya, or “the People’s Will,” assassinating Tsar Alexander II in 1881, paving the way for more radical organizations to form such as the Social Revolutionary Party’s affiliated SR Combat Group, which were responsible for countless murders of government officials from 1902 onwards. As Russia entered the 20th century the Romanov dynasty’s fate would be permanently sealed by the events of a humiliating conflict with Japan, sparking a dress rehearsal revolution in 1905, shedding light on the brutality of the Tsar’s regime and forcing him to concede his autocratic power to constitutional reforms to stabilise the situation in the country. ‘The real significance of 1905 lies not so much in what was as in the portents provided for the achievements for the future,’ is what Alan Wood argues and describes the creation of the State Duma as ‘lame constitutional reforms wrung from a reluctant and craven autocracy.’[1] Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the Tsar’s power concessions after the events of 1905 were only a temporary fix and would unavoidably decay over the coming years until his entire power platform would collapse, to which Halperns’ attributes that ‘nothing could arrest the historical process that had begun in 1905.’[2]

 

The outbreak of the First World War brought with it the perfect political, economic, and social climate, on both the home and battle front, for the long-awaited collapse of autocracy in Russia. Verner argues that the ‘growing social polarization on the eve of World War I,’ became irreversible and by entering the war the Russian autocracy ‘had doomed, or rather, doomed itself.’[3] The February revolution of 1917 which overthrew the Romanov dynasty was the spontaneous eruption of a multitude exasperated by the privatisations of war and by manifest inequality in the distribution of burdens. It was welcomed and utilized by a broad stratum of the bourgeoise and of the official class, which had lost confidence in the autocratic system of government and ‘especially in the persons of the Tsar and of his advisers.’[4] Taylor labels this as the ‘suicide of the Russian Monarchy,’ the desperate attempts to consolidate power throughout the war that allowed the final stage of the revolution to be set as the Tsar lost the confidence of his political, military, and economic advisors.[5] Barely after a year of the outbreak of the war in July 1914, it was evident Russia could not sustain the troop and territory losses they were receiving, and by September 1915, it was feasible the war was lost on the eastern front. Robert Lockhart labels this date as a turning-point in Russia’s war because ‘from then onwards there was to be a progressive pessimism which took the form of an ever-widening belief that under the Emperor Nicholas II and the existing form of government the war could not be won.’[6] All this was reflected on the home front as economic hardships became unbearable for inner city urban populations, with bread rationing becoming almost non-existent in St Petersburg and famine loomed, while other cities experienced a sharp decline in the availability of basic commodities, such as shoes and clothing. With winter closing in, it is not surprising that the workers expressed their discontent with spasmodic strikes across the country, giving the intelligentsia and middle classes ground to demand more resolutions to be passed that would entail a government that enjoyed the confidence of its people. There were calls for the reinstatement of the State Duma, which the Tsar adhered to by recalling it in November 1915. However, by March 1916, with internal infrastructure crumbling, the Empress Alexandra persuaded Nicholas to install an ultra-reactionary government and dissolve the Duma to cement the authority of the Tsarist autocracy. The repercussions of this was an ensuing death rattle for the last year of the Tsarist leadership of the country as this sparked the politically fatal bread riots in St Petersburg, which began the domino effect of the eventual abdication of the Tsar. The Bolsheviks politicised these bread riots, using them as a platform to rally crowds for their ultimate seizure of power in October 1917. Meanwhile, the morale of the army on the front was dwindling fast, with devastating defeats to the German army taking place. When the Tsar ordered 180,000 troops to quell the riots in the city, only 12,000 were reliable. The rest either deserted, were wounded, or mutinied and joined the crowds to protest against the Tsar. The Tsar attempted to reach St Petersburg via train on 28 February but was obstructed by protesters on the outskirts of city, and on 2 March, Army Chief Nikolai Ruzsky demanded his abdication and Nicholas accepted.

 

When comparing the events that led up to the collapse of the Romanov Empire to that of the Habsburg, there are undeniable differences. Where the Habsburg Empire is concerned, calls for complete independence from the empire were rare, whereas, as aforementioned, social tensions had been brewing within the Russian Empire for many years before its collapse in 1917. Before 1914, some Croat and Slovene intellectuals within the Habsburg Empire had talked of sharing a common, South Slav identity with the Serbians but this was only a minority, as Gumz mentions, ‘the dream of an extended Serbian influence throughout the south straights collapsed for fear of Habsburg revenge.’[7] Thus, there was a standout factor that would initiate the conclusion of the Habsburg monarchy and allow nationalist movements to thrive against the imperial power that overshadowed them. The outbreak of the First World War changed the equation and soon began to undermine the imperial consensus within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Initially, however, empire loyalties held remarkably firm and for much of the war, these loyalties trumped national movements as Poles, Czechs, Croats, and even Serbs and Italians fought for the emperor as conscripts. This is where November 1916 becomes a critical turning point in the collapse of the Habsburg Monarchy as it marked the death of Emperor Franz Joseph, causing severe uncertainty with the maintenance of the dual monarchy. Since the desired successor to Franz Joseph was the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was assassinated in Sarajevo in July 1914, which coincidently sparked the start of the war, the death of the Franz Joseph undoubtedly weakened the internal cohesion of the dual monarchy. Yet, without the eventual defeat of the Central Powers, the dual monarchy could have arguably survived the transfer of power from Franz Joseph to his heir, Karl, through ‘the advent of Central superiority with victory in Europe.’[8] However, Allied decision makers gradually moved away from their idea pf preserving the empire to completely dismantling it as one of the many punishing factors in the Treaty of Versailles. As defeat began to loom over the Central Powers and the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy experienced stark instability, the Austro-Hungarian army participated in mass mutinies and desertions, with reports of soldiers smashing the exterior windows of mobile trains in order to get aboard, and thousands dying in the process. Strikes broke out in Vienna in January 1918 because of the economic strain the war was putting on the home front, with a severe slash in the amount of bread rations. The Workers Council behind the strikes ‘subordinated all political aims for the increase in bread.’[9] Notice that this Workers Council did not politicise the bread riots in Vienna, unlike the Bolsheviks in Russia, demonstrating the difference in the ideological downfall in the Habsburg Empire – the people of Vienna were not coerced into a communist revolution. With the deterioration on both the home and battlefront, senior officials within the Austrian Parliament stated that ‘authority in Vienna no longer exists. Governing classes are much more anxious to save their personal property, than to save the state,’ which cements this idea of an anti-communist outlook of the Austrian bourgeoise, where the Russian middle class actively supported a communist takeover but was of little interest of the Austrians.[10] Therefore, during the last days of October 1918 national committees, hastily formed from the leading political parties, took over power in Vienna, Budapest and Prague, ‘inspired by revolutions that expressed the nationalities’ desire to form national and representative governments,’ and the imperial order disappeared.[11]

                                                                                  

Conclusion

Ultimately, there similarities and differences running intrinsically through the collapse of the Habsburg and Romanov empires. There is no refuting that the First World War was a pinnacle factor in both demise of these empires, but most definitely to a greater extent with regard to the Habsburg Empire. Without the advent of the war, the Monarchy could have undoubtedly survived because of its relatively small interior social discontent and its subjects were not keen on openly opposing the Monarchy’s authority as a majority. Russia had social tensions developing since the 1890s, and was simply a matter of time until the autocracy collapsed in on itself, through a dress rehearsal revolution in 1905, which activated a fatal countdown of Tsar Nicholas II’s eventual abdication and the final instalment of a Bolshevik state. This is where we see the major ideological difference between the two collapses, the Bolsheviks taking advantage of the city strikes to use a platform for their communist agenda and the Workers Council suspending any politicising of the bread riots in Vienna because they simply wanted an increase in the rations. There was simply an insufficient amount of social resentment present in the Austro-Hungarian Empire to warrant a communist revolution that could ride on the bandwagon of the social, economic, and political tensions caused and longingly exasperated by the First World War. Overall, the First World War acted as a catalyst for the downfall of the Romanov dynasty and allowed the creation of a platform for the Bolsheviks to take power, whereas it was the core reason for the collapse of the Habsburg, exposing the weaknesses in its dual monarchy and military efficiency. However, the war was not enough to merit a fully-fledged communist uprising in the empire because the monarchy could be replaced by constitutional bodies that already had existed in the empire but could now operate without the authority of the imperial order.           

            

Bibliography

  1. Wood, Alan, ‘Russia 1905: Dress Rehearsal for Revolution’, History Today 31.8 (London, 1981), p. 28.
  2. Halpern, A. J., ‘The Revolution of 1905: Tsarist Russia in Decline’, History Today 4.1 (London, 1954), p. 111.
  3. Verner, Andrew M., The Crisis of Russian Autocracy: Nicholas II and the 1905 Revolution (Princeton, 1990), p. 6.
  4. Carr, E. H., A History of Soviet Russia Volume One:  The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923 (Hong Kong, 1950), p. 70.
  5. Taylor, Edmund, The Fall of the Dynasties: The Collapse of the Old Order 1905-1922 (New York, 1989), p. 241.
  6. Lockhart, Robert, ‘”The Unanimous Revolution” Russia, February 1917’, Council on Foreign Affairs 35.2 (Jan., 1957), p. 323.
  7.  Gumz, Jonathan E., The Resurrection and Collapse of Empire in Habsburg Serbia, 1914-1918 (New York, 2009), p. 5.
  8. Rauchensteiner, Manfried, The First World War and the End of the Habsburg Monarchy, 1914-1918 (2014, Weimar), p. 232.
  9. Carsten, F. L., The First Austrian Republic 1918-1938 (Cambridge, 1986), pp. 2-3.
  10. Swanson, John C., The Remnants of the Habsburg Monarchy: The Shaping of Modern Austria and Hungary, 1918-1922 (New York, 2001), p. 7.

 

 

[1] Wood, Alan, ‘Russia 1905: Dress Rehearsal for Revolution’, History Today 31.8 (London, 1981), p. 28.

 

[2] Halpern, A. J., ‘The Revolution of 1905: Tsarist Russia in Decline’, History Today 4.1 (London, 1954), p. 111.

[3] Verner, Andrew M., The Crisis of Russian Autocracy: Nicholas II and the 1905 Revolution (Princeton, 1990), p. 6.

[4] Carr, E. H., A History of Soviet Russia Volume One:  The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923 (Hong Kong, 1950), p. 70.

[5] Taylor, Edmund, The Fall of the Dynasties: The Collapse of the Old Order 1905-1922 (New York, 1989), p. 241.

[6] Lockhart, Robert, ‘”The Unanimous Revolution” Russia, February 1917’, Council on Foreign Affairs 35.2 (Jan., 1957), p. 323.

[7] Gumz, Jonathan E., The Resurrection and Collapse of Empire in Habsburg Serbia, 1914-1918 (New York, 2009), p. 5.

[8] Rauchensteiner, Manfried, The First World War and the End of the Habsburg Monarchy, 1914-1918 (2014, Weimar), p. 232.

[9] Carsten, F. L., The First Austrian Republic 1918-1938 (Cambridge, 1986), p. 2.

[10] Ibid., p. 3.

[11] Swanson, John C., The Remnants of the Habsburg Monarchy: The Shaping of Modern Austria and Hungary, 1918-1922 (New York, 2001), p. 7.

 

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