As the world tumbled into the chasm of conflict in the early years of the twentieth century, one European country carried a light for tolerance, federalism, peace and prosperity. The United States of Greater Austria had been forged from an amalgam of nationalities, linguistic and ethnic groups.
Nationalistic conflict, partisan politics, ethnic tensions and division were replaced with co-operation and federalism. The Empire of Austria had become an empire of the people with opportunity for all under the uniting, benevolent and seemingly timeless rule of Habsburg Emperor Franz Ferdinand.
Could it have happened? Did Gavrilo Princip’s bullet not only plunge Europe into war but also kill an idea that could have tamed nationalism?
At the beginning of the First World War, almost all of the principal participants were monarchies. By the end of the conflict, only the United Kingdom, Belgium, Serbia, Romania, Japan and Italy would emerge with their rulers unchanged (albeit the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha would be renamed the ‘House of Windsor’ in the UK and ‘van België’ (Dutch) or ‘de Belgique’ (French) in bilingual Belgium).
Bulgaria’s monarchy survived, but at the price of the abdication of Tsar Ferdinand in favour of his son, who became Tsar Boris III. The King of Serbia went one better than surviving, heading the enlarged Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1918 (a state that was widely known as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and which took this title officially in 1929).
Great empires, historic kingdoms and ancient crowns came crashing down in the maelstrom of post-war political unrest. The four doomed emperors rules over almost 330 million people whilst their vast empires covered almost 20% of the world’s landmass.
The Hohenzollerns were unceremoniously booted out of a newly republican Germany whilst in Russia the Romanovs suffered a more immediate and violent end at the hands of their revolutionary jailers.
The Ottoman Empire would lose the bulk of its territory in the southern Levant and Arabian peninsula and, in its remaining territory, was unceremoniously dumped and replaced by the Republic of Turkey. The ‘sick man of Europe’ continued to defy expectation to live on until the abolition of the Sultanate in 1922 and the Caliphate in 1924.
Perhaps the most spectacular collapse was the disintegration of the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary, the creation of six successor states and the deposing of the House of Habsburg. From the 1400s onwards, the Habsburgs had played a pivotal role in European and world history.
If Queen Victoria was the Grandmother of Europe, the Habsburgs had, by the end of the nineteenth century, become a curious and increasingly eccentric great uncle – a relic of a bygone age.
At their peak, they held sway over Spain and Portugal and both of these Iberian powers’ old and new world colonial empires. In the rest of Europe, they ruled the Low Countries (modern day Belgium and the Netherlands), occupied the throne of the Holy Roman Emperors and, at various times, directly governed Austria, Bohemia, Hungary, most of modern day Italy and sizeable chunks of France.
For a few years in the mid-16th century , it even seemed likely that England would be subsumed into the Imperial orbit after the marriage of Philip II of Spain to Mary Tudor.
By the outbreak of the First World War, Habsburg power had concentrated in central and southern Europe in the form of the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary. It was slightly larger than Germany to the north but had slightly fewer people (50.6 million compared to 67 million).
More importantly for its performance in the war and for a fascinating counterfactual history, it was a truly multi-ethnic empire. The key components were Austria and Hungary, lending both their names and royal titles to the country. One of the only binding forces in the country was the monarchy, with many institutions bearing the prefix k.u.k. for kaiserlich und königlich (Imperial and Royal).
The Emperor of Austria and the King of Hungary ruled over, unsurprisingly enough, Austrians and Hungarians but also other German speaking minorities, Bohemians (or Czechs), Solvaks, Italians, Slovenians, Croats, Bosnians, Serbians, Romanians, Ukainians and Poles.
Across the whole country, German and Hungarian were the two most spoken first languages, accounting for 24% and 20% respectively in 1910. Of course, this meant that a majority did not speak either of these two languages as their mother tongue. Barely functional in peacetime, this polyglot agglomeration came unstuck under the ferocious nationalistic pressures of the First World War.
One of the most popular points of divergence for counterfactual history is the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. What if the assassins had bungled the shooting as they had their earlier attempts to bomb the royal motorcade? What if the driver hadn’t taken a wrong turn? What if the Archduke had heeded warnings not to visit Bosnia on such a symbolically laden day?
One of the most fascinating alternative histories arises not only from the survival of Franz Ferdinand but is intimately linked to his vision for the future. Instead of the ruin of nationalistic war, could the dual monarchy have turned itself into the model for multi-cultural unity? Was this idea a precursor for the European Union? Could it have been the European equivalent of the United States of America? Out of its many languages, ethnicities and territories, could a single country have been forged?
This was the idea behind the Vereinigte Staaten von Groß-Österreich, or the United States of Greater Austria. In place of the German and Hungarian dominated dual monarchy, the state would be federalised, drawing the poison of ethnic tension, linguistic divide and nationalism.
There was certainly plenty of poison to draw; one of the main authors of the plan, Aurel Popovici, noted that Austro-Hungarian politics of the early twentieth century was “marked by endless parliamentary crisis, bitter fights and “a savage kind hatred”, all the nationalities being bitter and throwing the responsibility on the Viennese circles.”
The messy historical compromises and relics of territorial divisions dating back to the Holy Roman Empire would be swept away. In their place, rational political units based on ethnic groups would ensure representation for all within a united federal structure. The Habsburg Monarchy would become a Völkerreich – an empire of the peoples.
Italians in Trentino, Czechs in Bohemia, Croatians in Croatia and, of course, states for German and Hungarian speakers. It would even deal with problematic linguistic enclaves and multicultural metropolises by creating autonomous regions and city governments.
But it didn’t happen. There is no way of knowing whether it ever could have happened – the plan looks neat on paper and drawn out in maps, but nationalistic tensions were not always so easily overcome. Popovici summed up the promise of the project and why, in reality, it never got off the ground:
“The great origin, language, customs and mentality diversity of different nationalities requires, for the whole Empire of the Habsburgs, a certain state form, which can guarantee that not a single nationality will be threatened, obstructed or offended in its national political life, in its private development, in its national pride, in one word – in its way of feeling and living”.