By the fourth year of the war the Habsburg Monarchy had reached the end of its tether and was in a state of complete military and economic exhaustion, which naturally inflicted a massive loss of authority on the traditional elites. In broad sectors of the population the longing for peace was accompanied by the desire for a comprehensive reordering of society and by an increasing feeling that the state structures of the Habsburg Monarchy were an impediment to progress.
The First World War was the first ‘modern war’ – not only on the level of matériel (notably the new aeroplanes, tanks and U-boats) but also of personnel, because of the involvement of the whole of society. War began to acquire totalitarian traits.
The war demonstrated the susceptibility of modern mass societies to nationalistic chauvinism and the glorification of force. The war rhetoric fell on receptive ears and at the beginning of the war the dominant mood was one of euphoria.
The course of events that led to the First World War was marked by mistakes and failures of judgement on the part of the traditional elites, who saw going to war as a solution for internal and external problems.
At the centre of the maelstrom was a great power at a watershed moment in its history: Austria-Hungary. The shots fired at Sarajevo in June 1914 triggered off – but did not cause – a development that was to throw the old Europe out of joint.
The Habsburg Monarchy came to an end in November 1918. The last emperor, Karl I, refused to abdicate and went into exile. Unsuccessful endeavours to regain power culminated in two failed putsch attempts in Hungary.
Following the early death of the former emperor in 1922, his widow Zita became the figurehead of the monarchist-legitimist movement in Central Europe. Militant and untiring in her efforts to support the Habsburg claim to the throne, Zita also played a not insignificant part in the beatification of her husband Karl in 2004.
The dynasty played a crucial role in the self-image of the Habsburg Monarchy; after all, the original existence of the multi-ethnic state was bound up with the House of Habsburg-Lorraine. The Habsburg Empire was a product of dynastic politics and in the age of national states increasingly seen as an outdated relic.
As the First World War wore on, there was a noticeable trend in the Czech political scene away from its previous passivity to a more energetic course of action in the struggle for national independence. The impending future with its threat of a German-dominated Central Europe now caused a remarkably rapid diminishing of the country’s identification with the military objectives of Austria-Hungary.
Pan-Germanism, pan-Slavism or Italian irredentism – what all these national ideologies had in common was the desire to join together with their co-nationals and achieve unification in an ideally ethnically pure state, thereby satisfying the yearning for national completeness.
In the era of emerging nations, the Romanian language group had to deal with numerous disadvantages. Its belated development as a nation was due to the absence of a social and economic leader class. The national emancipation from political control by other language elites therefore went hand in hand with social demands.
An important role in this regard was played by the clergy, which in the rural milieu of the mainly peasant Romanian society represented an authority. The pioneers of the Romanian cultural identity came from their ranks.
The Magyars were the second-largest language group in the Habsburg Monarchy after the German speakers and were the dominant nation state within the Kingdom of Hungary. The gentry were fiercely proud of the historical traditions of Magyardom and shaped the basic national conservative political mood in Hungary.
In the Habsburg Monarchy no distinction was made, as today, between the Croats, Serbs and Bosnians as southern Slav ethnic groups. Because of the great similarity of the languages, the speakers of this group of languages were known collectively as ‘Serbo-Croats’. For statistical purposes the Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy inquired only about language but not about the national, cultural or confessional identity.