Emperor Franz Joseph was the symbol par excellence of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. For most of his subjects the Emperor was a sacrosanct figure who deserved their utmost respect. He had been on the throne since 1848 and for one and all was simply ‘the Kaiser’.
In the last days of October 1918 events followed in rapid succession. Having existed for nearly 640 years, Habsburg dominion in Austria collapsed within just a few days.
Once the other nationalities had confirmed their decision to leave the Dual Monarchy by proclaiming their independence, the two ‘peoples of state’ – the German Austrians and the Magyars – sought to prepare the ground for their respective futures.
For the non-German and non-Magyar peoples the incipient disintegration of the Monarchy opened up new prospects for the future.
On 14 August 1918, at a meeting between Emperor Karl and Kaiser Wilhelm at the German headquarters in the Belgian town of Spa, the German Chief of General Staff Hindenburg and his deputy Ludendorff for the first time stated the obvious: the impossibility of the ‘victorious peace’ that had so long been their goal.
On 16 October 1918, after it had become clear that the negotiations conducted by the imperial government with the deputies of the Reichsrat and the representatives of the nationalities would be unsuccessful, Emperor Karl published an appeal with an invitation to his peoples to take part in a complete restructuring of the Austrian Monarchy.
On 8 January 1918, Thomas Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924), who had been President of the USA since 1913, held a programmatic speech before both houses of Congress in which he interpreted the war as a moral struggle for democracy and staked out the cornerstones for post-war Europe.
In parallel with the war on the battlefields another war was being waged on the diplomatic level, in which Vienna’s confused policy between war and peace ended in a humiliation and led the Habsburg Monarchy into a diplomatic catastrophe.
The parliaments of the Central Powers were still manned by the old elites, who were unable to throw off the chains of war and continued to cling to the illusion of a victorious peace. Amongst the general population, by contrast, the long lists of the fallen, the ubiquitous presence of war invalids and the shortage of basic necessities made many question the sense of the war that they had initially welcomed so heartily.
In the fourth year of the war there was a widespread feeling of ‘burn-out’ in the Habsburg Monarchy, with the supply situation in a catastrophic state and the mood of the general population one of war-weariness and frustration. The initial euphoria was now long forgotten.