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L'agonie d'une monarchie, Autriche-Hongrie 1914-1920

Updated on April 10, 2019

Ahh, Austria-Hungary, or dear old Austria as it sometimes gets the cheerful moniker in various works about it. It seems to be a strange state, one which alternatively inspires disgust and scorn, viewed as a feeble and weak multinational country illustrating all of the problems of multiculturalism and bound to be collapsed, or a profound nostalgia for a relatively liberal, cosmopolitan, peaceful, and benevolent empire which in many ways represents a flawed, but not nearly as hopeless and doomed as commonly proclaimed, predecessor of the modern ideals of European integration. Yet for whichever viewpoint one is looking at Austria-Hungary from, without doubt the period of greatest focus is the First World War: indeed, for the average person, this is perhaps the only period when Austria-Hungary swims out of obscurity to some brief moment of historical focus. It is in covering this period that there exists the book L'agonie d'une monarchie, Autriche-Hongrie, 1914-1920.

What sort of history book is this volume? To encapsulate, this work by Jean-Paul Bled is a rather generalist volume: it is devoted above all else to the political, military, and diplomatic history of Austria-Hungary throughout the war, seeing it through the eyes of the top leaders when necessary, but as a whole principally focusing on the general path of the monarchy throughout this period. It begins with a lengthy section about the lead up to the First World War and the diplomatic crisis which ultimately led to the eruption of the conflict, and then for the conflict itself principally examines the internal political evolution, putting specific focus on the challenges of relations between the two constituent parts of Austria and Hungary, the relationship to Germany, the growing crisis at the heart of the country as the system strained and then ultimately collapsed under the stress of war, general diplomacy, and the arrangements of political leadership at the top of the structure.

In regards to this, the book is well done, and it gives a very thorough and exhaustive view of much of the Austro-Hungarian evolution. In particular a great deal of quite interesting focus is delivered upon the diplomatic relations of the monarchy, covering the topic of the peace ouvertures carried out with the Allies throughout 1916 to 1918, what they hoped to gain, why they were done, and what their ultimate effect was. At the center of this story is the figure of the Emperor, with following the death of Franz Joseph, the new Emperor Charles being portrayed as a sympathetic, well-intentioned, but ultimately overwhelmed and perhaps slightly naive figure. So too, Bled is well aware of the relationship between the two component parts of Austria-Hungary, and goes into great detail about how this was modified over the course of the war, most often to the benefit of Hungary.

The other great modification was the Austro-Hungarian subservience to Germany, and where, the book shines with the effects that this brought (in effect, roping Austria-Hungary to the German beast - instead of the Germans being shackled to the corpse of Austria-Hungary as is often portrayed), ie. the disintegration of the empire, but also why - a question which is covered in both internal and external causes. Internally, due to the structure of Austria-Hungary which led to the internal interest groups of the Austrian Germans supporting the alliance with Germany as part of their own efforts to control the empire upon their own terms, and externally, as Austria-Hungary suffered multiple catastrophic defeats or was enfeebled on multiple occasions, leading to the need for German intervention to save it - with the accompanying cost that this imposed upon Austro-Hungarian sovereignty. Although it is not a military book, it does provide a good general overview of the course of military affairs, and in doing so, it does a particularly good job of linking these back to political involvements high up in the Austro-Hungarian government.

The focus on the figure of Franz Joseph and then following him Emperor Charles is of great importance in the volume.
The focus on the figure of Franz Joseph and then following him Emperor Charles is of great importance in the volume.

At the same time, there are certain definite limitations. While the internal political situation of the monarchy is covered in broad terms, the evolution of its ideals and the full-scale examination of its scope and how the power on the ground changed throughout the course of the empire is something which is rarely taken into account. The book is focused above all else upon the elites of the empire, with very little focus upon the lives of common people, beyond recounting that their fate was miserable due to the growing problems associated with famine, the collapse of the economy, and losses in war. There is much more that could have been devoted, with only limited additional space to be taken up, to this story which would have done much to flesh out and to provide a better understanding of the situation of Austria-Hungary in the war, beyond just of the highest echelons of society. Instead, vast sections of the book are devoted to some generalist subjects, such as the diplomacy which led up to the war and the 1914 crisis. Certainly, these were important events - but the book devotes well in excess of 100 pages to what is too much complexity for the amateur, and insufficient detail for the specialist. Perhaps the recurrent focus on the idea of the "monarchy", rather than a reference to the empire, serves as a good focus point for how one should perceive the book - at its center, it is the story of the monarchy, and Austria-Hungary was in a sense ultimately nothing more than its appendage and expression.

In the end, although not a spectacular book, and rather lengthy at times for covering material which is either broadly known, or rehashes previous knowledge, L'agonie d'une monarchie does present a good picture of the internal politics, a general overview of military affairs and in particular their relationship to the interior of the country and its politics, and evolution of Austria-Hungary throughout the course of the First World War. If it does so without as much focus on the evolution of the internal culture, ideas, with a great degree of impersonality, in some extent this is inevitable for a book which focuses on the broad picture of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. For those who are interested in the political evolution of Austria-Hungary throughout the period, its foreign relations, the view of its elite governing classes, and as a general overview of the Empire, it makes for a useful and advantageous book. But it is one which fundamentally leaves meany subjects in the dark and on its own, for the price of 500 pages, doesn't illuminate the empire as well as it could have.

3 stars for L'agonie d'une monarchie

© 2019 Ryan Thomas


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