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Austro-Hungarian Crisis (Das Große Vaterland)

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Austro-Hungarian Crisis
Hungarian-Romanian War of 1919 (National Military Museum Collection) 13

RomanianCavalryBudapest Romanian-infantry-03 Top: Austrian soldiers in review before battle Center: Hungarian cavalry moves through Budapest

Bottom: Yugoslav infantry in battle
Beginning:

September 10, 1919

End:

June 28, 1923

Place:

Austria-Hungary

Outcome:

Victory for Greater Austria and Germany; Establishment of United States of Greater Austria

Combatants

United States of Greater Austria
Germany

Hungarian Soviet Republic
Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes
Czechoslovakia
Austrian nationalists and Conservatives

Commanders

Ferdinand II of Austria
Archduke Friedrich, Duke of Teschen
Hans von Seeckt
Manfred von Richthofen

Bela Kun
Sandor Garbai
Peter I of Yugoslavia
Edvard Beneš
Count Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf
Charles I of Austria (1919-1922)

Strength

1,400,000

1,150,000

Casualties and Losses

244,000 Killed or wounded
275,000 civilian casualties

700,000 Killed, wounded, or captured
457,000 civilian casualties

The Austro-Hungarian Crisis was the first major conflict of the 1920's in which several breakaway nations in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire attempted to break away from the country as it transitioned to a constitutional monarchy under the United States of Greater Austria. These nations, the Hungarian Soviet Republic, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenese (also known widely as Yugoslavia), and Czechoslovakia were then followed by a fracture in the upper society of Greater Austria as conservatives forces, hoping to re-assert absolutist rule to quell the rebellion rose up against King Ferdinand II of Austria and his reformist government. Eventually the German Empire intervened on the side of the Greater Austria, and proved the decisive force in the war. The war lasted from 1919 when the Austro-Hungarian Imperial Council agreed to dissolve in favor of the new Constitution of Greater Austria, and ended only in 1923 when the Kingdom of Yugoslavia surrendered and the Peace of Innsbruck ended the Conservative Insurrection. The war became well known for its brutal nature, especially the high civilian casualties incurred on both sides, reaching well over 700,000 by the war's end.

Background

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was born out of the ashes of the Austrian Empire in 1867 after the end of the Austro-Prussian War. With this war's end Prussia was left as the supreme power and Austria was left to rebuild, the foundation of Austria-Hungary was on the basis of a dual monarchy, a single monarch ruling both Austria and Hungary as Emperor-King. But by 1914, Austrians and Hungarians made up 44% of the Empire's population and the entirety of its political power. After Austria-Hungary suffered another defeat in the War of Nations, it again began to turn to Germany, now its own single nation. The Austro-Hungarian Empire began to see nationalism as a problem in this time and sought to extinguish it by making German the national language and pushing German to be taught as a secondary language throughout the country. But this did little to stop the expansion of nationalism, which eventually pushed the country on the path that lead to World War I.

On June 28, 1914, Serbian nationalists killed Prince Charles of Austria did the Balkan powder keg blow up and thus began World War I. Austria-Hungary was fighting in a fight for survival, against Russia in the east and Serbia and Montenegro in the south. Although the latter two were a very small threat to Austria-Hungary and Russia was mostly Germany's problem, this was still a major fight for Austria-Hungary. If they did survive it then it could be the force necessary to reform the country towards a better path in the eyes of Ferdinand II. The fight was hard fought for Austria-Hungary, the Serbians proved a greater threat to Austria-Hungary than originally anticipated. But eventually Serbia, Montenegro, and Albania were defeated the Balkans became dominated by the Central Powers. To the east, Russia was a bigger and stronger power, but even they had finally reached their breaking point and the Austro-Hungarians and Germans managed to defeat them after a three-year long campaign. Thus Austria-Hungary was able to make plans for the future, at least in the short run, moving to annex Serbia and Montengro.

Following the end of World War I, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had taken a different route than previously under Emperor Ferdinand II. The Emperor now actively pursued a policy of reforming Austria-Hungary into a constitutional federative monarchy with the new nation of the United States of Greater Austria. Germany, Austria-Hungary's main ally, was a major force in pushing for the establishment of Greater Austria; the Germans wanted a stronger, more stable ally and the German government was sure that this would be the correct path for Austria to achieve this by. Ferdinand was supported by his Prime Minister and a good portion of the Imperial Council, and with this pushed for a reformed nation. While the majority of the Austrian and German governments supported Franz's crusade, the nationalistic forces in Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia, and Yugoslavia began to take notice. They didn't want to see the nation held together at the point they felt it was close a long-awaited collapse, which they would seize upon to establish their own nations. The Austrians prepared to rebuild their nation from what they though was the worst of nationalistic tensions, they did not have any idea how far it would go.

On September 7, 1919, the Imperial Council approved the Greater Austrian Sanction, in which it agreed to dissolve in favor of allowing the new Constitution to take effect and allow for a new Parliament of Greater Austria to be elected. Taking advantage of this, the Hungarian Communist Party declared the secession of the Hungarian Soviet Republic in the style of Soviet Russia on September 9. This was followed by Czechoslovakia on September 10, the same day that Peter of Yugoslavia declared with his supporters the independence of Yugoslavia in Belgrade. On this day the United States of Greater Austria declared war against these secessionists and the Provisional Prime Minister, Aurel Popovici, a Romanian, called for a National Army to counter the threat. Soon after this, Germany began to plan military aid to Austria.

War in Hungary (1919-1921)

Hungary was the first of the former Austro-Hungarian states to secede, doing so on September 9, 1919. The Hungarian Communist Party seized all political and economic power in the region and declared its independence as a socialist state. The new government established the People's Revolutionary Army of Hungary, which became known as the Red Army of Hungary, and it quickly grew to have 15,000 members from across Hungary. The original force was, as Hungarian Leader of the Revolution Bela Kun put it, established "to produce a vanguard of the proletariat and to lead the workers to revolution." A further 30,000 soldiers joined over the course of the remainder of 1919, which the Austrian National Army used also as time to build up its numbers. But then in December of 1919, the Austrians made an attempt at taking border towns like Sopron and Szombathely. These early attempts succeeded at catching the Red Army by surprise, but did not take the Austrians very far. It was, however, a step in the right direction and the beginning of the Austro-Hungarian War, giving Austria a stepping stone into Hungary.

In early 1920, Archduke Friedrich, Duke of Teschen, was declared the Supreme Commander of the Austrian National Army and began his campaign against Hungary. But this campaign was much harder fought than the Austrians had anticipated it would be. The Hungarians by this time had raised an army of 70,000 and over the course of January and Ferbruary had moved their soldiers from the farms and cities towards the border areas to the west. The Austrians only had 45,000 soldiers to throw into the battle at this point, but they were mostly experienced veterans the later parts of World War I. The Hungarians defense of western Hungary was unsuccessful due to supply and reasons of experience as most of the Hungarians who participated in World War I were against the Red Army. The provinces of Vas and Gyor-Moson-Sopron were seized by the Austrian National Army, and to assist in defeating the Red Army, King Ferdinand ordered the establishment of a counter-revolutionary force in Hungary. The result was the building of the Hungarian National Army, which became known as the White Army, and was formed originally with just 750 soldiers, veteran from the last war.

But as the Austrians marched eastward into Hungary, they faced an even greater threat as the Hungarian Soviet Republic, funded from the growing Russian Red Army, began to employ partisans against the Austrians. The Hungarians managed to slow down the Austrian advance, even as the Austrians began to deploy tank units against the Hungarians. In that case the Hungarians would simply use anti-tank mines they took or improvised explosive devices they built. From this point on the Austrian advance slowed to a halt, even though they had captured over a quarter of Hungary. At this point as the war stagnated heading into the Summer of 1920, the German Reichstag approved a German Expeditionary Force to intervene in the conflict on the behalf of Austria. German General Hans von Seeckt was selected to lead the land part of the GEF, while World War I hero and officer, Generalmajor Manfred von Richthofen lead the aerial corps of the GEF. The purpose of this force was to both reinforce the Austrian National Army, to improve their general performance, and to reinforce the importance of an air force against a ground-based enemy.

In the Autumn of 1920, the Austrian National Army, fully reinforced by the Germans, launched an offensive into central Hungary. This Fall Offensive pushed the Red Army back through Central Hungary and brought the Austrians to the outskirts of Budapest. The Hungarian White Army gained steam at this point as well as many of the World War I veterans in Hungary joined this counter-revolutionary force. The Austrian National Army turned a blind eye as the White Army began a reign of terror against the Hungarian Soviet Republic. This White Terror reigned for three years in Hungary as the White Army now took the power back, supported by the Austrians, they killed and executed the Communist Party members that suppressed them before the return of the Austrians. Budapest fell to the Austrians on October 23, and with that Hungary was declared a province of Greater Austria, under the command of Mihály Károlyi, who was appointed to lead the new Hungary. The Austrians continued on through Hungary, with the combined aerial force of Austria and Germany raining death upon the Hungarian partisans. As the Hungarian Soviet Republic died, it requested direct aid from Russia, but as they were busy fighting their own Civil War, they declined.

Over the early months of 1921 the last remnants of Socialist Hungary were swept up by the forces of Austria and White Hungary. While much of the Hungarian population approved of the new Hungarian government under Greater Austria, they also turned a blind eye to the White Terror. Members of the Communist Party would be seized from their homes, given courts martial by the White Army, and then executed when found guilty of treason. The White Army operated with lists given to them by both the Hungarian provisional government, but also by the Austrians. This ensured that both former members of the Red Army were being killed, as were radical nationalist forces that had pushed for independence earlier. On March 10, 1921, the war in Hungary finally ended when the last remnants of the Hungarian Red Army surrendered in Tarpa.

War in Yugoslavia (1919-1923)

When the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenese, otherwise known as Yugoslavia, declared independence from Austria-Hungary, they began to organize far faster than their counterparts in Hungary. Unlike the Hungarian Soviet Republic, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was supported by a wide range of forces across Yugoslavia. Also unlike Hungary, many people weren't willing to compromise their independence for government approval of anti-revolutionary activity. Yugoslavia raised an army of 100,000 soldiers over the course of the Winter of 1919-1920, but were likewise unable to fend off a series of Austrians cross-border raids in late 1919. King Peter also spent this time uniting Yugoslavia under a coalition government of moderates, nationalists, and even some socialists. This made Yugoslavia the toughest of the nationalist nuts to crack for Austria, and the latter did fail when they attempted to attack Yugoslavia in early 1920. When March 1920 came around the war in Yugoslavia was at a stalemate, but the Yugoslav, hoping to make a point, did not go on the offensive. They simply wished to defend their independence, not to take away the independence of Austria.

But Austria was not as kind or nearly as merciful as the Yugoslavians, they did not respect Yugoslavia's independence and sought to crush it. Throughout the Spring of 1920, the Austrians attempted numerous crossings into Yugoslavia, but was beaten back by the Yugoslav defenders at every turn. Even so, the Yugoslavs did not attack the Austrian homeland, and the Austrians did not wish to attack Yugoslavia first after being given German assistance. Throughout the rest of 1920 Austria focused on Hungary, beating down the Hungarian Soviet Republic until it was cut down to size by the end of the year. With the defeat of Hungary, Yugoslavia prepared itself, knowing that they would be the next target. But despite the better advice of Germany, Austria decided not to focus too much on either Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia. Instead they would tackle both sides at once, depending on both the Germans and ability of Austria's own army.

In the Winter of 1920, as the war in Hungary died down, the Austrians began to focus on the Yugoslavs, who, like Hungary, had a very weak form of air defense. Although many airmen in Austria-Hungary's Air Corps in World War I were experienced from the war, most of them were from Austria and Hungary, thus giving the air advantage to Austria. The Hungarian White Army was also deployed in the first Hungarian units of the Austrian National Army, now being transferred from their home to the front against Yugoslavia. With these increased numbers, Austria was able to push deeper into Yugoslavia than ever before, mainly into the Slovene area in the country. The first major cities to fall were Kranj and Maribor, but as the Winter frost came, the maximum advance came to the point of being right outside of Ljubljana, the Slovenian sub-capital. Through the rest of the Winter of 1920-1921 Austria focused on developing its supply lines while more guns and artillery flowed in from Germany. And as tim went on both sides were able to increase their numbers, even as both faced logistical problems.

In the Spring of 1921, the focus of Austria's efforts was put into defeating the Royal Yugoslav Army, mainly subduing them in battle so that the general campaign would be easier. But the Yugoslavs did not make it easy on the Austrians, even as they were able to push deeper into Yugoslavia and captured much of Slovenia, the Austrians did suffer substantial casualties at this point. Regardless the Austrians pushed on, now into the area dominated by Croats, while also pushing into the area of Vojvodina, Serb territory. Austria, despite casualties, did manage to make significant pushes against the Yugoslav Army, taking the city of Zagreb by July. At this point it became clear that Yugoslavia's Army was becoming tired of fighting this losing battle, and Croatia fell easily to an Austrian offensive in the Summer of 1921. By the Fall of 1921, much of northern Yugoslavia was now once more in Austrian hands. From this land Austria began to find volunteers more accepting of their cause, many of whom were deserting Yugoslavs who had grown disenchanted with the Yugoslav regime. And as the Austrians reached Bosnia, they found an area rife with anti-Yugoslav fervor as the Bosnians has been suppressed and killed under the Yugoslav regime. In Greater Austria they saw the chance of a peaceful existence, all they were told to do was fight for it.

Much of Bosnia fell easily to Austria in late 1921 and early 1922 as the Bosnians rallied to Austria's side, hoping for a superior position to the Yugoslavs in the new Austrian state. The Bosnians were promised a greater level of semi-autonomy than most members of the confederation, and in reaction the Bosnians became a major force for Austria, with many Bosnians flocking to join the Austrian National Army. In total, 85,000 Bosnians soldiers joined Austria's Army in the Winter of 1921-1922, and Sarajevo easily fell to the Austrians on March 4, 1922. But the Bosnians were quick to warn the Austrians that even though they were easily taken by the Austrians that the Serbians and Montenegrins would not fall so easily. The Austrians were quite conscious of this fact, many Austrians having fought the Serbs and Montenegrins in World War I. Although it seemed this would not be true as the Austrians advanced easily into eastern Serbia in April of 1922. However, when they tried to push farther, they were met with near-suicidal Serbian units, determined to push back the Austrians at whatever cost they deemed necessary. But all this did was kill more Serbs, as the Austrians, armed with their German-made machine guns, were all to capable and happy to do.

Finally, on June 2, 1922, the Yugoslav capital of Belgrade was captured, while most of the government, including King Peter, had already withdrawn to Pristina, it was a major military victory for the Austrians. They had defeated or captured 45,000 Yugoslav soldiers in the battle, and with this victory much of Serbia fell as well. Throughout the rest of June 1922, much of central Serbia fell under Austrian rule, at which point the Serbians began to use terror tactics against the Austrians. The Serbs would kill any Austrians POWs they could get their hands on, and even kill members of the Yugoslav population in towns that were sympathetic to the Austrians. Eventually the Serbs were pushed back to the West Morava River, which handicapped the Serbs enough that the Austrians began to focus on Montenegro. Although Montenegro was willing to secede from Austria-Hungary, it was not as motivated as Serbia, even though Serbia had suffered a worse defeat in World War I at the hands of Austria. When the Austrians began to push into Montenegro in August, the campaign went over well and much of Montenegro, weakly defended by the Yugoslav Army, fell by October.

But before they moved in to crush the Serbians, Austria showed some mercy and gave the remaining Yugoslavs the chance to surrender, either as a whole or individually. Some Serbs surrendered in whole units, some tried to surrender individually but were killed by their own officers before they could do so, many remained, but weakened. To make their attack even harder on the Serbs, the Austrians began their crushing offensive in December, in the beginning of a harsh Winter. While this cold chill made it hard for Austrian airplanes to fly, the Serbs were still heavily demoralized and suffered high casualties as the Austrians moved into Kosovo. The Serbs could hold off the Austrians no longer, and to prevent his army from losing any more soldiers, King Peter agreed to a ceasefire on January 25. Yugoslavia officially surrendered to Austria on February 13, bringing much of what remained in the country back into Austria.

War in Czechoslovakia (1919-1922)

With the secession of Czechoslovakia on September 9, 1922, a people that the Austrians had little considered a threat or even worried about rose up for their independence. The Czechs and the Slovaks elected a President to lead them in November of 1919, aiming for a path of political unity like that of Yugoslavia. They selected Edvard Beneš, a strong Czechoslovak nationalist, to run the government, while Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk became the leader of a sect of Austro-slavists. These Austro-slavists wished to see to it that Austria was made into a federalist state to allow for a peaceful coexistence between Austrians, Hungarians, and Slavs. Masaryk asked that the Austrian government support him in an attempted coup against the reigning nationalist government of Czechoslovakia. Austria agreed, although they could actually offer Masaryk very little real support. But despite this, Masaryk launched an unsuccessful coup in December, but despite its failure Masaryk and his supporters fled to Austria. There they formed a government-in-exile with the support of Austria and Germany, who recognized his government as the real one over Czechoslovakia.

In 1920, with their Army prepared, Austria waited to launch its assault into Czechoslovakia until they had the support of Germany. They did not want to overstretch their Army, and so when von Seeckt came in the late Summer, the Austrians then began their major attack into Czechoslovakia in August of 1920. Prior to this they had managed to make some minor assaults into Bohemia, but these did not amount to much in 1919. But with their first offensive, much of German Bohemia easily fell to the Austrians, as the Germans were supporters of Austro-slavism, and much of the area fell to the Austrians by October. However, the rest of Bohemia was much more well-defended, as the Czechoslovak capital of Prague lay just a short distance now from the Austrian lines. Meanwhile, Masaryk set up a temporary headquarters in Usti nad Labem, where he organized a government and a group of pro-Austrian militias. Although this force was only 1200 strong towards the end of 1920, it was the beginning of a greater victory for the Austrians. But by November of 1920, the Austrians had advanced far enough that they began to besiege the city of Prague. Much of the Czechoslovak government remained in the city, while some greater power was shifted to the eastern city of Bratislava, where President Beneš now resided.

Towards the end of 1920, as the fighting in Hungary died down, the Austrians prepared for an all-out offensive into Czechoslovakia. Much of the border areas with Hungary now became hostile territory, especially in the area around Bratislava, forcing the government to relocate once more to Košice, far from the front of fighting. And as 1920 turned into 1921, the situation for the Czechoslovaks only got worse. The Austrians were starving Prague into submission while the Czechoslovak Army in general was suffering from a lack of arms and ammunition. Although the Hungarian Red Army had managed to transport some of their arms to the Czechoslovaks, this was still not enough to stop the advancing Austrians. Finally on March 2, 1921, Prague fell, Bratislava surrendered, and with this the situation for the dying Czechoslovak Republic got worse. Masaryk's side became more appealing as more soldiers flocked to his banner and more international assistance and recognition flooded in from Austria's allies, like Bulgaria and Germany. By the Summer of 1921, most of Czechoslovakia had fallen, almost all of Bohemia and parts of Moravia were under the control of Masaryk's government while much of southern Slovakia had also fallen to the Austrians.

Much of Moravia and Bohemia fell to the Austrians during the later parts of the Summer as the Czechs had a significant edge in the early parts of the season. But regardless of all of the Czechoslovak's ability to resist, much of what was left of their country had fallen when 1922 came around. After months of running, Beneš and his government were captured, being forced to submit to the Austrian federal court system, which many of them, including Beneš, did not survive. With Matarysk now in power, he lead the country back and integrated Czechoslovakia back into the United States of Greater Austria. With this only Austria was left, ironically, as a threat to the United States of Greater Austria's unity.

The Conservative Coup (1921-1923)

When Austria declared it was going on a path towards becoming a constitutional federal state, there were people in all parts of Austria-Hungary who did not want this to happen. While most of them were in Slavic areas around the country, some of them were also in Austria itself, nationalists and conservatives who were against giving power to the "minorities," as they put it. The Austrian conservatives, lead by Maximilian Eugen of Habsburg, Franz Ferdinand's own cousin, and Count Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, a leader of the Austro-Hungarian military in World War I. In early 1921, while the war in Hungary was dying down, and the wars in Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were escalating, these two men joined forces and launched a coup in Austria itself. Although they failed to topple the weakened Vienna government, they did take control of Innsbruck, establishing a base there. From there some Austrian military units in the area deserted to the conservative's, but they did manage to make for much ground outside of western Austria.

But this still remained a thorn in the side of Ferdinand's government, after all, he couldn't now appear to represent the opinion of the majority of Austria if part of his country was in an uprising. While he did divert 5,000 soldiers to fight this coup, it only managed to hold off the conservatives, who had the support of a small amount of government members and servicemen who came to their aid in 1921. But while the war was being won in Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, the Austrians turned a blind eye to the coup as it represented only a small part of the threat against the Greater Austria initiative. But the conservatives maintained a stiff resistance, even if they couldn't advance eastward, they did disrupt the trains that would be bringing aid from Italy. Besides these acts of sabotage, they also managed to co-ordinate surprise raids into the central parts of the country, made by insurgents who believed in their cause. However, this did little to stymie the Austrian advances elsewhere, and the Austrian National Army spent 1921 turning the tide of the war, defeating Hungary, and pushing back the Yugoslav and Czechoslovak Armies. Meanwhile, they began to turn a bit more attention to the rebels in the east, increasing their anti-insurgent force to 6,500.

The coup members tried to step up their efforts, but only ended up burning out their resources. Their campaign became especially hard when the Austrians employed their Air Corps against them, using strategic bombers to attack enemy radio stations and using infiltration units to cut telephone lines. Eventually, the Austrians were able to turn more and more attention to the Austrian Insurgency, 10,000 soldiers in total by 1922. Throughout 1922 and 1923 the insurgency broke down, losing its resources over time, and eventually its supporters. Many of the soldiers who supported the movement died in 1922, and in early 1923 the coup members tried for one last hoorah. But in 1922, Maximilian died of natural causes, leaving von Hötzendorf in complete control of the conservative cause. Von Hötzendorf pushed to attempt one last attack on Vienna, but even though they could only muster up 200 partisans to launch the attack. Regardless, the Vienna attack did little to cause mayhem and chaos, in fact it may have hastened the end of the insurrection. All of the 200 partisans were killed or captured in the battle, even though the von Hötzendorf regime didn't fall until June.

Peace of Innsbruck and End of the War

The Peace of Innsbruck ended the conflict on June 28, 1923, four years to the day the June Constitution, as it became known, was signed. It was signed by representatives of all of the new provinces of Greater Austria, while many of their former leaders were then facing trial for treason. In the end the crisis served as a way for Austria did purge itself of the nationalist and anti-reformist factions that lingered after World War I. Ferdinand took his victory as a divine message that what he was doing was just, and thus lead the country to reform. From the ashes of World War I, this crisis, and the months of reform that followed emerged the United States of Greater Austria. This was now a more progressive state than the stagnation and terror that had come to define Austria-Hungary. Soon after the crisis ended support flooded in for Austria, with international recognition coming in from Austria's allies in World War I, and eventually getting recognition from the League of Nations, the first case of the LoN doing so. The end of the Austro-Hungarian Crisis marked the near end for the post-World War I chaos that plagued Germany and her allies, all but the Turks were peaceful now, giving Germany time to focus on rebuilding.

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